In the very first chapter of The Castle, Kafka’s land surveyor is getting to know the uncanny village to which he has presumably been summoned by the mysterious count. He observes a landmark: “The church tower, tapering decisively, without hesitation, straightway toward the top, capped by a wide roof with red tiles, was an earthly building — what else can we build? — but with a higher goal than the low jumble of houses and with a clearer expression than that of the dull workday.”
The land surveyor’s world-weary question — “what else can we build?” — is not, for students and lovers of religious architecture, a merely rhetorical one; and the “higher goal” and “clearer expression” he mentioned pose a practical challenge. One of the key individuals taking up this challenge in recent years has been Duncan G. Stroik, who is not only a practitioner of architecture but an educator: He helped put together the classical-architecture curriculum at Notre Dame, and has just published a beautifully produced book, The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal.
Especially within Catholicism, church architecture has been a controversial field over the past century or so. Architectural modernism has been embraced by church authorities, but has met with noticeably less enthusiasm among the laity. Perhaps the nadir of this modernism is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, shepherded to completion by Roger Cardinal Mahony (hence the pejorative name “Taj Mahony”). I used to think Catholic critics were overreacting and that their harshness was unjustified — Surely, no church building could be as hideous as they are suggesting? — but then I saw a picture of it.
Stroik’s book makes the case — in his text and in its many, stunning illustrations — that a serious revival of pre-modernist sacred architecture is getting underway, one that balances tradition with innovation. He writes that “the Roman Catholic church building is a prolepsis, an anticipation of the future,” and “a three-dimensional introduction into the heavenly kingdom.” This is perforce true, to at least some extent, even of sacred buildings of denominations and other religious bodies that place less stress on, or are even hostile to, visual attempts to represent divine realities. By virtue of being designed specifically for a religious purpose, a building takes on this mediating role, and assists (well or poorly) the process of religious formation. But Catholicism stands out among Christian bodies for its emphasis on visual beauty, so it’s only fitting that it should take the lead in a new movement toward excellence in this field — toward a better three-dimensional suggestion of higher truth.