The Traditional versus the Modern in Church Design

Church in Foligno, Italy / Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas

“Space, lines, light and sound” are the essential components of the experience of architecture and the most profound buildings have captured these moments through thoughtfully orchestrated design.  Recently, architects that have designed with these primary elements in mind have come under criticism by the Vatican for diverting from the traditional form and iconography of .  According to a recent article in The TelegraphMassimiliano and Doriana Fuksas’ design for a church in Foligno, Italy has been labeled as problematic by the parish and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s Pontificial Council for Culture, for its resemblance to a museum instead of a place of worship – based on traditional Catholic values placed on the altar and imagery. Regardless of the Vatican’s criticism of the aesthetic approach of architects that break with tradition, this seems more of an issue of miscommunication between the architects and the congregations that have commissioned the projects that are being criticized.

More on this after the break.

Church in Foligno, Italy / Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas

In favor of this aesthetic, consider Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Ronchamp, a modest Catholic Church built in the 1950s just outside of Paris.  The primary character of this church is that of an architecture of pure space, detailed by light through the careful placement solids and voids.  Its essential character, dictated by a reductive aesthetic that stepped away from the traditional extravagant detail and ornate religious figures of the traditional churches of the time, is that of a pure meditative space.  The modernist aesthetic permeated Corbusier’s take on and it seems that contemporary architects have followed in these footsteps, breaking from tradition to create a religious experience based on meditation and contemplation, regardless of creed.

Church of 2000 / Richard Meier and Partners

Places of worship can take many forms.  Essentially, they are spaces that allow for contemplation, reflection and meditation.  The traditions steeped within each tradition have dictated the architecture for centuries. But as Tom Kington’s article in The Telegraph points out, “the last architects to work closely with the church were back in the 17th century Baroque era”.  The work we are looking at today has attributes of a universal approach to religion.  The buildings are manifestations of the values that are common over a broad scope of religious beliefs, but may also be accepted by secular, non-religious people.  The iconography is frequently maintained, but is less emphatic when compared to the altar of a traditional Catholic Church in Rome, for example.

See below for some selections of modern churches featured on ArchDaily that have aspired to create spaces of religious meditation and contemplation, but have been criticized for being more like museums than places of worship and tell us what you think.

Notre Dame du Ronchamp / Le Corbusier; Photo © Cara Hyde-Basso

Notre Dame du Ronchamp / Le Corbusier; 1954

Chapel of the Holy Cross / Richard Hein; Photo © Loredana Sava

Chapel of the Holy Cross / Richard Hein; 1956

Church of Light / Tadao Ando; Photo © Buou

Church of the Light / Tadao Ando; 1989 and 1999

Church of 2000 / Richard Meier and Partners

Church of 2000 / Richard Meier & Partners Architects; 2003

Church of Seed / O Studio Architects; Photo © Iwan Baan

Church of Seed / O Studio Architects; 2011

Cathedral of the Northern Lights / SHL Architects + LINK arkitektur ; Photo © Adam Mørk

Cathedral of the Northern Lights / SHL Architects + LINK arkitektur; 2013

More photos of modern mid-century churches by Fabrice Fouillet here.

Cite: Vinnitskaya, Irina. "The Traditional versus the Modern in Church Design" 09 Jun 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <>
  • Diane

    The church in Foligno space is obviously stark and may be great for the prayer and meditation of some, but as is stated in the last line of the first paragraph, of the greatest importance is whether it meets the desires and needs of the clients. The fact that the parishoners were labeling the design as “problematic” poses the question of how it even reached a fully built state – unless the pastor and council were particular fans of the contemporary aesthetic.

  • Laszlo Kovacs

    very interesting. in my opinion this is a change for the good. i’ve visited kresge chapel at MIT a few times and it is one of the greatest churches ive ever been to. a truly existential experience.

  • black swan

    It’s interesting.

  • Neil

    It sounds like a major issue is briefing and failure to communicate requirements and aspirations properly. I don’t get the impression that it is the fact that the architecture is modern that is their problem – in fact the Catholic Church has been a good patron of modern architecture in all periods – but that is doesn’t fulfill their liturgical requirements. Why is this not being resolved while the design is still on paper? Surely models were presented? It sounds as if there is problem in communication in both directions.

  • Tim

    Many of these churches are just embracing church icons in a different way. For exmaple instead of common church symbols many of these frame natural landscapes, revealing the beauty of the world. Several of them have windows only looking skyward, a clear allusion to the heavens. While i find these spaces much more compelling, I can understand the inner workings need to be there (altar, nave, etc.). Yet that doesn’t mean we should continue to build gothic arches and georgian steeples.

  • Nick

    I think the problem here is the statement that architects are now trying to “create a religious experience based on meditation and contemplation, regardless of creed.” If it is supposed to be a Catholic church, it cannot be designed “regardless of creed.” There must be something about that design that is uniquely and inherently Catholic. Something that reflects the true identity of the space. While many contemporary church designs are undoubtedly “transformational” that is simply not enough. When I look at this structure there is nothing about it that tells me it is a Catholic church versus any other Christian denomination. A Jewish synagogue must have certain elements that make it uniquely Jewish. A mosque must have certain elements that make it uniquely Muslim. Likewise in architecture for Catholicism. Creating a “religious experience based on meditation and contemplation” is great, but those spaces will be just that. A Catholic church must go beyond merely being an ambiguous (albeit transformational) space.

  • Darren BRADLEY

    Great topic. I’ve long been intrigued about how churches and places of worship embraced modernism. I wrote about this on my own blog last week, as well.

  • jprati

    Not all modern church design is equal. Meiers’ design is a beautifully articualated Modern expression of a building reaching vertically towards God, similar to the traditional gothic arches and steeples, while the concrete box is a faceless, soul-less, anti-expression that reaches nowhere and towards no one. Indeed the introverted aesthetic of the concrete box might be fitting of a museum.

  • Eric in Colorado

    I think the “problem” here is the Catholic Church itself. This is another example of it’s loss of touch with it’s membership and their desires and ways of living. Why should the Vatican say what a church looks like, or how a person is to feel and think about birth control or homosexuality. The Catholic Church must face the fact that it is no longer the arbiter of it’s members lives.

  • Scott Warner

    In the current era it is more important that a religious building creates a contemplative, spiritual, and meditative atmosphere as opposed to enforcing specific dogmas through blatant symbolism. It is more effective for a religious work of architecture to reference spirituality through more abstract means such as lighting, connection to the sky/nature, texture, sound, and ambiance. Contemporary religious designs bring out the best aspects of religion that can be enjoyed by all people as opposed to typical/classical religious designs that are more concerned with fundamentalism and tradition for tradition’s sake. Architects have the opportunity to make religion a more positive force through design, however (as this article suggests) many religious figures are opposed to a more abstract, open, and contemporary form of architecture which seems to be a bigger problem than the architecture.

  • jacques

    To everyone in general:
    If you would like to study further I’d recommend you read:
    -Liturgy and architecture by Louis Bouyer
    -The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger
    -with the same title: The Spirit of the Liturgy by Romano Guardini
    -the entire part 2 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church
    -and analysing Antoni Gaudí’s work

    I won’t say how temples of other creeds should be projected because it wouldn’t make sense to speak of what I don’t know or believe.
    As far as catholic churches are concerned, the hierarchy isn’t the problem, any catholic that knows (and lives) his faith well will say that a main problem with contemporary churches is that they don’t communicate the liturgy. The church is the place where the sacraments take place, it’s not about the icons, although they help lots. According to the catechism “the sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament”. Therefore, symbolism is extremely important
    for a church to communicate the liturgy that describes how the sacraments take place. I don’t mean that we should keep projecting “gothic arches and georgian steeples”, but Tradition is very important in the Church, not for the sake of tradition, but because “the Catholic Church has as its sole rule of faith, the entire Word of God, as it is found in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition”. So if you want to project churches without considering tradition: knock yourself out with protestant churches, but it won’t work for catholic churches. I could go on, but I just wanted to propose that people investigate more so as to have a more objective view on the matter, because many of the comments seem to spring out of pride.

    • Bruno

      That’s great point for clarifying how to properly encounter clients and ideas. I’ve enjoyed reading your comments and I believe you glimpsed us with important aspects of our practice.