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Can there be a Christian Architecture?

 

This fundamental question was addressed by Prof. Robert McLeod, who had recently retired from Brighton School of Architecture, at the Arts Centre Group's annual lecture in 1996.
 

Prof. McLeod was one of the patrons of the Arts Centre Group, an organisation for Christians working in the arts, media and entertainment industries; and he spoke of the continued search for a Christian architecture, a constant striving to realise in this world the true nature of what is to come in the next.
 

Prof. McLeod argued that each attempt to find or define a Christian architecture had failed to fulfil its expectations, and some by systematising a particular theological understanding had ended up like a cult - the security sought through systematic guidance became a prison.

He then described two examples of this search for a Christian architecture, not to despise them, but to warn that the idea is untenable. Both examples were of 19th century British architects, though they probably never met; both were Christians deeply committed to their denominations, and yet they came to opposite conclusions in every way.

The first was A.W.N. Pugin best known for his work on the Houses of Parliament, who in his polemical book Contrasts contrasted his imaginary ideal of the Middle Ages when he thought the Catholic Church was its peak, to a caricature of contemporary life. Pugin believed that God's revelation came through the Church and he therefore chose the architectural style current at the Church's peak as the only fitting Christian architecture; and that was early 14th century Gothic. Classical architecture, then still current in early Victorian Britain, he denounced as pagan.

Pugin then published another book, The True Principals of Christian Architecture, which influenced three generations of architects such that still today the Gothic style is associated with churches. Some see him as the forerunner of modern architecture with its functional emphasis because he emphasised functional, as opposed to symmetrical (classical) planning, in which the exterior of a building should reflect its internal arrangements. But for Pugin functionalism also included decoration as the enrichment of the structure, a Gothic concept, contrary to what he saw as arbitrary classical decoration.

The second example given was Alexander 'Greek' Thomson, who is acknowledged as an amazingly original architect, formerly less well known than Pugin but now rivalling C.R. Mackitosh in their native Glasgow. He was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and believed that God's revelation came through Scripture, not through the church. He also believed that God first gave the Egyptians the concept of life after death (and hence their reason for building the pyramids) and that Greek culture prepared the way for the coming of Christ.

In developing his own style Thomson went backwards through time to the Egyptian style and beyond, basing its appearance on the drawings of John Martin which were at the time taken as archaeologically correct reconstructions of ancient architecture, with squat columns and heavy horizontals. Thomson chose a column and beam structure as stable, compared to the Gothic system of arches which he saw as unstable as it required buttresses.

Again Thomson has been seen as a forerunner of modern architecture because his detailing was repetitive, mechanical and precise, the complete opposite of Gothic, and his use of metal window frames recessed behind the stonework foreshadow modern architecture.

So here we have two totally opposing, though nearly contemporary, approaches to design, in differing styles, both claiming to be Christian in that they were making the divine manifest.

Prof. McLeod gave pointers to the way to design as Christians throughout the lecture but before summarising he gave an example of a building, Brockhampton Church in Herefordshire, which has qualities lacking in churches designed by Pugin and Thomson. It was designed by W.R. Lethaby who was not a Christian, and whose beliefs and approach to design were ambivalent, unlike Pugin's and Thomson's. However Lethaby saw the history of architecture as expressing the beliefs of the societies that produced it, and hence he was sympathetic to the beliefs of this particular congregation and produced a building suiting their aspirations.

But Brockhampton Church is also ambivalent; it appears to be traditional expressing continuity with the past, with a cruciform basilican plan, but it is not specifically Gothic in style. Internally stone arches span the nave and support an exposed boardmarked concrete roof, thatched on the outside for waterproofing and insulation. The building technology employed is an incremental development of the knowledge of the time, rather than being used to make a rebellious statement.
 

To conclude Prof. McLeod suggested it was a mistake to search for a specifically Christian style or set of rules to produce Christian architecture.

Instead he gave a strategy for a Christian approach to design:-

1

our engagement should be with the world as it is, and to do that we need to listen to it and bring our perceptions to God for discernment.

2

we must seek to serve, not to be self-expressive, though that will come about naturally.

3

we reject chaos, and all things should be done decently and in order.

4

we must abandon our arrogance over the environment, both the natural and the built.

The result is not a style or rule book, it is not mechanical, but flows from the fruit of the Spirit.

 

Report by Leslie Barker

 

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