The following comes from a Sept. 25 posting by Fr. Dwight Longenecker on Patheos.com.
I’ve taken the time to look at the pictures and plans for the diocese of Orange’s Christ Cathedral and it presents some very interesting problems and solutions.
First of all one has to take the building as it is and wonder at it. We are confronted first of all with the problem of modern architecture for sacred space. While I am fond of traditional church architecture, I’m not opposed in principle to a church building constructed with modern materials in a modern style. A church is not good or bad just because it is old fashioned or new fashioned. One has to ask other questions.
One of the questions we asked when planning our Romanesque style church in Greenville SC (pictured here) is whether it should be built out of solid masonry or not. Solid masonry would have the advantage of being what it looks like: a solid permanent building. However, a modern steel structure is more cost effective, easier and faster to build. (Go here for more information about our new church and how to donate)
Is it always wrong to build with modern materials in a traditional style? I think not. Wouldn’t the eminently practical architects of the Middle Ages have used steel and glass if they were available?
If they had glass and steel in the Middle Ages what would they have built? This leads one to ponder what the Gothic architects were trying to do.
In examples like Sainte Chapelle in Paris or Kings College Cambridge the architects strove to make the stone walls just as thin as possible and fill them with unimaginable acres of glass. If they had steel would they not have done something approaching Christ Cathedral? In that respect, given the modern context and location, materials, etc. perhaps Christ Cathedral is in continuity with the Gothic in a few other modern churches are. At least it is not built in the brutal concrete bunker style of its neighbor in Los Angeles. (By the way here are my thoughts on the LA cathedral also in California.) The building speaks of light and is transcendent and beautiful in a way few other modern churches even attempt to be.
The problem with traditional churches is that they can sometimes be no more than copies of earlier churches. The problem with modern churches is that there is no continuity with the past, and this is what hits me most as what is “bad” about Christ Cathedral. Just how does one maintain continuity with the past in a building that is so modern? The idea of the floating canopy over the altar is a strong reference to the past, and of course the furnishings in their simplicity echo the past, and it would certainly be wrong to plonk down a baroque altarpiece or a gothic pulpit in such a building.
On balance I think the architects have managed the sanctuary space relatively well. What disturbs me is the “antiphonal” seating. I’ve been in those kind of churches and it is difficult to focus together on the action at the altar when you’re watching the people on the other side. On the other hand, in such a vast space should all the seating be “straight up and down” large numbers would be miles away from the altar. The debates must have gone back and forth.
What’s good? I think the building itself makes one of the best modern cathedrals I’ve seen. It is light, airy and speaks of heaven in an otherworldly sense. It is not brutally utilitarian. It has a sense of space, glory and attempts to lift one to another plane. The icon of Christ in the narthex seems both modern and ancient. It does provide some continuity.
What’s bad? It breaks the great tradition rather than developing the great tradition. It’s iconic and iconoclastic at the same time. This is a problem because our language of worship is built up from the images, signs and symbols–including architectural styles–from the past. The danger is that Catholics will go into a building like this and not find any connecting points. Like most modern, unique buildings it exudes a certain hubris. Its a bit “hey! look at me!”
What’s ugly? I’m afraid the baptismal in the shape of a cross is a tacky and hackneyed idea, and what on earth is that tabernacle in the separate Blessed Sacrament chapel? Surely these are the areas where some tradition and continuity could have been brought in and developed.
On the whole we have a modern cathedral for a modern age. In my opinion it could be worse.
To read the original posting, click here.