Living stones: Designing the churches of tomorrow

Thursday 31 January 2019

Toby Ward  
In conversation with Fr Richard Vosko: Radical hospitality and the churches of tomorrow...The symposium will be held at ACU’s St Patrick’s Campus, North Fitzroy from 6 – 8 February.
Every church is different. Each space holds a unique reverence and an inimitable history. From the world’s oldest places of worship to its newest, God exists in all. To further understand the fabric of the buildings designed for Catholic worship, the National Liturgical Architecture and Art Board and ACU will welcome architects, historians, parishioners, liturgists, designers and theology students to a symposium at ACU St Patrick’s Campus in February to learn more about the walls that hear our prayers and the journey our churches have taken to become what they are today. Keynote speaker Fr Richard Vosko, a priest in the Diocese of Albany, USA, is a member of the Albany Diocesan Architecture and Building Commission as well as a liturgical design consultant. Fr Vosko has been central to the redesign and renovations of countless churches in the USA. As the symposium draws closer, he took the time to speak to Melbourne Catholic.

What are some of the changes in liturgical design seen in recent times and what does such change indicate as to where church design/architecture is heading?

This is a difficult question to answer, because the various periods of reform dating back to the mid-19th century European liturgical movements have not been expressed in the same way architecturally in every country. Currently, there are examples of new churches in some European Union and Asian countries that have modern exteriors but traditional liturgical arrangements of spaces inside. In the United States, many churches look traditional on the outside but have been rearranged on the interior, placing the altar in the midst of the congregation. And post-Conciliar churches in the US are more circular or semi-circular in design.
Why is this the case and is it a pattern that is seen elsewhere?
By drawing the assembly closer to the ritual action around the altar and ambo, worshipers are called to active, conscious participation in the celebration of the paschal mystery. This sense of doing the liturgy together is hard to achieve in some long, narrow churches where the altar table is in a location that is far removed from the assembly. Studies that look into how people behave in certain physical settings have helped us to understand that a more centralised architectural arrangement of space fosters more active participation in any activity. In a long, narrow church, with the altar in a remote location, the members of the congregation can become passive spectators watching the clergy do something for them. We are shaped by what we shape.
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, informally known as COLA or the Los Angeles Cathedral, is a cathedral of the Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles, California, United States of America. The construction was supervised by Father Richard S. Vosko 

How can new or redesigned spaces become welcoming environments and places that encourage and inspire worship?

This is a much simpler question. The answer may be found using just two words—‘radical hospitality’. Studies have shown that younger generations want their church communities to be authentic, to accept them as they are and to help them grow spiritually. This means congregations must welcome with open arms the stranger, divorced and remarried couples without annulments, members of the LGBTQ community, the homeless. No one is judged.

It also means the language of the liturgy is less prescribed and formal, more inclusive, more poetic, more relational. It means homilies are relevant and not patriarchal. It means presiders sit with the people and not separate from them.

Architecturally, it means the church building is free of barriers. Even the space where the altar and ambo are located is accessible to all persons. It also means the entrances to our churches are larger places that offer hospitality, especially before and after liturgical events. In short, the church building is personified as a ‘servant church’, meaning it is a manifestation of the mission of the congregation. If the community is not hospitable, the church building will most likely not be hospitable. Church architecture is all about fostering relationships.

A great deal of emphasis is placed on hospitality in liturgy and therefore in church architecture. Abraham and Sarah offering hospitality to the three strangers is a good model (Gen 18:1–15). Martha and Mary offering Jesus hospitality is another model (Luke 10:38–41). Jesus himself spent his entire ministry welcoming those who had been shunned by society.

Walk into any new non-denominational church today and hospitality is apparent. In fact, studies reveal that it is a huge reason why some people leave their childhood religions. They do not feel welcomed in their mainline churches. When going to church, being welcomed makes one feel a sense of belonging. This sense of hospitality is not limited to the entry experience too. It should be expressed throughout the liturgy in words, ministries, actions and the architectural setting. An inclusive place of worship has no borders or specialty areas that separate members of the clergy from the laity. And, of course, people of all physical and psychological abilities are welcomed in a barrier-free building.
 St Vincent de Paul Church, Albany, NY. Left: before redesign by Fr Vosko. Right: Post-redeisgn outcome
What are some of the key aspects to keep in mind when redeveloping liturgical spaces?

Creating space for hospitality in older churches is hard to do. But without a doubt, new churches should be designed with such greeting places. Churches are not museums but living stones. Cultures and religious habits change, and so too must church buildings. Ideally, a church building is designed with some flexibility built into it so it can be modified as the congregation’s identity and how it’s members worship develop over time. The key architectural elements of church design include attention to details and the characteristics or personality of the church, accessibility or inclusivity, beauty (which is hard to define), and storytelling. Churches are organic narratives that describe the traditions of the members. This is why a church building cannot revere just one period of architectural or ecclesiastical history and why a church’s design should be flexible to the congregation’s needs.

What does a balance between modern design and a more traditional style of architecture look like?

This is something that I explore in my new book, Art and architecture for congregational worship: the search for a common ground. I examine ways to design contemporary liturgical spaces without overlooking the architectural principles that have guided church design for centuries into the modernist period. That is to say, the exterior style of the church building is important but matters less than what goes on inside. What goes on inside the church is dependent on the way the furniture and the assembly are arranged, fostering active, conscious participation in the paschal event memorialised in the liturgy.

The major criticism of some modern and postmodern churches is that they lack substance and beauty. My proposal is that architects and pastoral leaders should promote church buildings that carefully balance proportions and scale to achieve beauty and harmony.

There will be critics who say that a centralised church plan focusses too much on the assembly and not the worship of God. That raises the question about where God dwells—simply, God is both here and there, absent and present, transcendent and immanent.

What impact does this balance have on design and how does it influence the way liturgical spaces are used?

This balance respects the time-honoured principles of architectural design dating back to the classic Greco-Roman period that have been sustained in various ways throughout the history of church design. Moreover, it will allow for innovation. This element is dependant more on congregational leadership. A church designed in a classical style does not mean the interior must follow the same traditional layout.

It is important to realise that the placement of the altar is a different issue from the question regarding church design. Catholics and other Christians have accepted the remote location of the altar table and pulpit because until recently no one in history challenged the preconceived notion of what a church should look like. I am proposing that church design can be classical or postmodern in style as long as the interior is shaped in an egalitarian
manner—inclusive, no compartments, no distinct areas for clergy and laity—so that all members of the community can perform the ritual memorialisation of the paschal event that belongs to every baptised person. 
There has never been an official statement in the Catholic Church of a preference for one style of art or architecture, so it would be wrong to assume or teach that one architectural or artistic style is more suitable for Catholic worship than another.

Rev. Dr Richard Vosko is keynote speaker at the National Church Architecture Symposium on Catholic liturgical cultural heritage. 
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