Chinese Architectural Mimicry

A few days ago, I happened to catch this interesting piece on PRI’s The World that offered a glimpse into Thames Town, a recently built, faux English village in eastern China. While the reception of this new “village” has been mixed by both architectural critics and local residents, the article explains that:

 “…according to [Bianca] Bosker, while many westerners think of knock-off architecture as kitschy and bizarre, many in China find it truly lovely. She says that’s partly because China has a different attitude towards copying. In the West, copying signals a lack of imagination. But in China, she says, ‘mimicry is actually a form of mastery, in a symbolic sense.’”

Photo via Traveloscopy Travelblog

At the center of the Thames Town development stands a massive replica of an English church. But British architect Tony Mackay, the master planner of Thames Town isn’t pleased with the design.

“Windows are in the wrong place. The proportions are wrong. The use of the different stones is all wrong. It would never be used like that in the genuine English church.”

As historically inaccurate as the church and other structures may be, the Chinese view these knock-off towns as an affordable way to experience a small taste of a foreign country. However, Mackay ultimately thinks they are a fad.

“The younger generations here they don’t want old-fashioned style, they want modernism. They want something new, which connects to their gear, their iPads, and their modern lifestyle.”

Photo via Evan Chakroff at Flickr

While not about ecclesiastical architecture specifically, I think this article offer a lot to ponder in the current architecture wars that are being waged in the realm of church design. Are new, “traditional” church buildings “a form of mastery” in their mimicry? Do younger generations really eschew traditional building styles in favor of something that “…connects to their gear, their iPads, and their modern lifestyle?” What do you think?





56 responses to “Chinese Architectural Mimicry”

  1. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
    Dale Rodrigue

    It doesn’t matter if it’s a “traditional” knockoff church building or a “modern” knockoff church building. It’s about taste.
    Some of the worst churches are those traditional churches updated with a modern looking sanctuary that doesn’t match the rest of the church architecture, and some modern church buildings recently updated to look traditional (one shown on PTB a few months ago) are quite ugly too.
    Again all about taste, what is “traditional” and what is “modern”?
    Two ugly churches (in my opinion only) is the “traditional” church in Ave Maria FL and a “modern” church in CT that looked like a volcano.

    1. Fr. Ron Krisman Avatar
      Fr. Ron Krisman

      @Dale Rodrigue – comment #1:

      Dale, perhaps you are referring to Sacred Heart Church in Vernon, CT?

      If so, I never heard anyone describe it as looking like a volcano. I was aware that some folks thought it looked like a pyramid or, perhaps, a trash incinerator.

      Over a decade ago Sacred Heart was condemned because of faulty construction:

      I have not been successful in discovering whether the architectural problems were corrected and the church reopened for use.

      I visited the church twice in the early 1970’s, soon after it had been built. There was a huge fabric tapestry designed by Ade Bethune of Newport, RI, depicting Christ the Pantocrator. As it is not shown in the 2001 photos, I wonder what ever happened to it. It was spectacular against the poured concrete “flue.”

      1. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
        Dale Rodrigue

        @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #3:
        Fr, it was either Sacred Heart or St Gregory the Great in Danbury: .
        About 15 years ago we were returning from Philadelphia and stopped w/ the kids at a small park off I-84 so it was either Sacred Heart or St. Gregory the Great.
        I am not judging the community by the appearance of their church, the early Christian martyrs worshiped in catacombs. But good taste in architecture, whether churches, schools, government buildings usually elicit a good innate feeling. Rather, I was startled by the appearance, had to look twice and still startled.

      2. Jim McKay Avatar
        Jim McKay

        @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #3:

        Sacred Heart’s “Directions” subpage says:

        “The most distinctive landmark to guide you is the huge “Concrete Oblique
        Truncated Pyramid” that served as our church for about 30 years before structural problems led to its closure.

        “All services are now celebrated in the original sanctuary at this site, in what had become our Parish Hall.”

  2. M. Jackson Osborn Avatar
    M. Jackson Osborn

    Well, it’s pretty obvious that architect Tony MacKay’s assessment of this church is ‘spot on’. It’s not that far removed from what one might call ‘amusement park architecture’. And, as for quite a lot (but not all) current church architecture which ‘mimics’ historical styles, the first thing one notices is that, indeed, the proportions are wrong, the cavalier mixture and misuse of architectural elements and materials is wrong, the acoustics are wrong, the scale is wrong, the absence of a real organ is wrong, the absence of that soul of actual human handcraftsmanship in favour of synthetic and mass produced materials and items is wrong, and there isn’t much that is right, save a certain nostalgic evocation. Another thing that is disturbingly wrong is that most people, including the architects, are blisfully unaware of what is wrong. We do live, increasingly, in an age of fakery. There is nothing admirable about this mimicry.

    1. Anthony Mackay Avatar
      Anthony Mackay

      @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #2:
      Thanks for the note of support. Thames Town and its appalling pastiche ‘English’ styling is a tiny part, in fact one small housing scheme, in the city of Songjiang for which I was the masterplanner back in 2001 when working as a consultant to Atkins, when we won the international competition.
      Thames Town was designed later by a team from Atkins based on mimicking the superficial styles of a range of English buildings and the result is a mish mash of pseudo Georgian, medieval and Victorian architecture. In my opinion it is misguided, even though it is immensely popular as a kind of ‘theme park’ residential area. The rest of the city has about one million people now and is based on general English Town Planning principles adapted for the Chinese context. Anyone genuinely interested in the development of new cities in China might care to look at the city as a whole and to study its’ structure and character rather than focussing on such trivial sideshows.

  3. Brendan Kelleher svd Avatar
    Brendan Kelleher svd

    Having a “Wedding Chapel” is de rigeur for a hotel in Japan. If you care to check out images on Google you will encouter some interesting designs. Back in February I did a wedding for a former student at a hotel in Tokyo for which I attatch a photo link. The majority of wedddings at the hotel, at which one of the sisters of the groom is employed, are “Christian”. They use a real Protestant pastor, other places use actors – a popular part-time job for exchange students from the USA.…2448.11855.0.12629.…0.0…1ac.1.15.img.mZEB1SF04JY#facrc=_&

    1. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
      Dale Rodrigue

      @Brendan Kelleher svd – comment #5:
      Brendan, interesting photos especially the small wedding chapel in “Hell, Michigan” with a question mark on the steeple instead of a cross!

  4. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
    Dale Rodrigue

    Interested in a BEAUTIFUL remodeled church done in good taste?

    Follow the link. (The benedictine arrangement was only recently added. Hopefully will change back to the previous four floor candleholders).

    Behold a feast for your eyes: St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Covington, Kentucky.


    1. Jack Wayne Avatar
      Jack Wayne

      @Dale Rodrigue – comment #7:
      What strikes me most is how unnecessary the remodel seems to be… it’s OK, as far as remodels go because they at least kept a lot of the original design elements, but still unfortunate.

      At least it doesn’t place an enormous financial burden on the future generation that would eventually have to restore it, like that awful Cathedral in Milwaukee will.

      M Jackson Osborn is spot on about proportions when reviving older styles. A plain building with good proportions is more successful than an ornamented one with bad proportions. Good proportions in a building can make even mediocre catalogue art look better than a badly proportioned building with handcrafted art, IMO. That’s why even “bad” Victorian buildings are better than a lot of neo-traditional buildings.

      1. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
        Dale Rodrigue

        @Jack Wayne – comment #11:

        Sorry Jack, I don’t agree w/ you at all. If you think that St. Mary’s remodel is only “OK” then we’re worlds apart.
        Furthermore, why do you think the cathedral in Milwaukee will need to be “restored”? A bit presumptuous on your part?

        Sorry, but I think that as the pontificate of Pope Francis unfurls you will find that “RoTR” restorations by “future generations” and that remnant idea of church will be as dead as B16 will be.

      2. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
        Dale Rodrigue

        @Dale Rodrigue – comment #12:
        My written comments come across harsher than I intended.
        Some of the good parishoners in Milwaukee bristle at the constant “knocking” their cathedral gets from many online sites not associated w/ their diocese. Many outside voices want the cathedral re-remodeled when most in the diocese are pleased a decade out and want no part of a re-remodeling.

        But Jack, St Mary’s remodel is only “OK”, really? Surely you jest?
        Jack, can you provide a link to a church remodel that you really like.

  5. Chase M. Becker Avatar

    Dale Rodrigue :

    It doesn’t matter if it’s a “traditional” knockoff church building or a “modern” knockoff church building. It’s about taste.

    I agree completely. We’ve all seen poorly done “traditional” and “contemporary” church buildings.

    You bring up a good point in renovations: it’s especially important to stay true to the original architect’s intent, no matter the era, or else you’ll end up with a jumbled mess.

    Thanks for sharing the link to the Covington Cathedral. I’ve been there myself and the renovation is fabulous. It does a fantastic job respecting the original design while bringing out the best in contemporary liturgical principals.

  6. Chase M. Becker Avatar

    M. Jackson Osborn :

    …the absence of that soul of actual human handcraftsmanship in favour of synthetic and mass produced materials and items is wrong…

    You hit the nail on the head here. This is the biggest problem with church buildings today. But truthfully, catalog art has been a part of American church design from the beginning. Stained glass, altars, and statuary were all ordered from catalogs. The local Church needs to engage the artists of today in order to reclaim the Church’s role as patron of the arts. But that level of engagement and dialogue takes a certain amount of time and patience that many pastors and building committees simply do not have. It’s easier to pick something out of a catalog.

    This issue reminds me of a few points in the former Environment and Art in Catholic Worship:

    21. Appropriateness is another demand that liturgy rightfully makes upon any art that would serve its action. The work of art must be appropriate in two ways: 1) it must be capable of bearing the weight of mystery, awe, reverence, and wonder which the liturgical action expresses; 2) it must clearly serve (and not interrupt) ritual action which has its own structure, rhythm, and movement.

    22. The first point rules out anything trivial and self-centered, anything fake, cheap, or shoddy, anything pretentious or superficial. That kind of appropriateness, obviously, is related to quality. It demands a kind of transparency, so that we see and experience both the work of art and something beyond it.

  7. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
    Jordan Zarembo

    While I live in Conn., I have never been to Sacred Heart in Vernon. My heart sinks to think that a parish would want to worship in such a penitential church. No icons and no statues over side altars. At least the architect had the sense to place a canopy over the altar. Endless slabs of cold concrete stand silently, as if mortar alone supports human affection. Even Oliver Cromwell would likely have shuddered to worship in such a place. Perhaps divine providence mercifully placed that church out of commission.

    Perhaps Sacred Heart Church should serve as a historical warning to liturgists and architects that not only does the human mind requires didactic instruction through the words of liturgy, but also a visual semiotic display with familiar and stylized religious imagery. In this way I am contradicting myself, as I have said that low Mass often communicates the meaning of the Eucharist well without excessive aesthetics. Yet, Sacred Heart is the epitome of an unrelenting didacticism which imprisons the mind, as there is nowhere to fix the gaze and therefore concentrate thoughts. Indeed, the monotonous crush of concrete would appear to purposefully discourage meditation, even with the presence of only one article of devotional art (which I have not seen, so I cannot give an opinion). This church’s brutalist architecture forces a false uniformity of thought and action onto weary congregants drained of spiritual inspiration.

    Both of the parishes I attend, 19th century neo-gothic churches in southern Connecticut have recently undergone restoration. I suspect that neither St. Mary, Norwalk and St. John the Evangelist Basilica, Stamford would likely not suit many here liturgically, but no one could say that these churches are without image, color, and multiple foci.

  8. Jack Wayne Avatar
    Jack Wayne

    I’ve actually been to Mass at the Milwaukee Cathedral. It is uncomfortable and you constantly had to turn every which way to see things. They seem to have designed it to be a concert hall first and a church second. It was still controversial too, especially in the wake of all the scandals. I don’t think it is presumptuous at all to think future generations will have to restore it – and that assertion has nothing to do with liturgical preference. Historic buildings often get restored to their original appearance, often at great expense, so as to undo unsympathetic remodeling.

    The best old church remodels I’ve seen were really more restorations. The Basilica in Milwaukee is breathtaking. They have a freestanding altar, but kept the original one under the altar canopy for the Blessed Sacrament. St Anthony nearby is also amazing. In Milwaukee, the Cathedral is actually one of the least impressive churches one could visit when there. Old St Mary’s, a couple blocks away, is more interesting.

    The Covington Cathedral remodel seems to have made the amazing gothic altar canopy completely useless (I wasn’t able to look at your link, so maybe the tabernacle – or something – is there?). It’s also odd to me to pull the altar out into the nave, but then surround it with yards of blank space. Putting the people far way seems to have replaced altar rails as a way to distinguish between sanctuary and nave.

    Like I said, I’m sure it’s OK. If it were a new church I would say it was amazing, but in this case it isn’t an improvement over what was once there. One doesn’t have to be part of a “dying remnant” to think so.

    1. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

      @Jack Wayne – comment #15:
      you constantly had to turn every which way to see things

      I found this an interesting comment. I tend to like churches where I physically have to shift my position as the liturgical action unfolds. But I suspect that someone whose liturgical ideal is focused more upon contemplation and interior participation would find this highly distracting.

      1. Jack Wayne Avatar
        Jack Wayne

        @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #16:
        I don’t have a problem looking different directions, but it was too cramped and therefore uncomfortable. I attended a large multi-parish Confirmation there, so everyone around me was a visitor. All I overheard was how uncomfortable it was sitting in the tiny chairs shoved too close together to kneel. We spent the whole homily unable to see the Bishop. It was still a lovely Mass, but not because of the building.

        I think what I dislike most about many renovations is that they often treat the historic surroundings like a museum piece they are stuck with. Milwaukee’s renovation basically plopped a contemporary church arrangement into a building that was designed for a different, but still useable and valid, arrangement. Perhaps most people love it, but it really wasn’t my cup of tea. I’ll give it another shot if I’m ever in the area again.

  9. John Kohanski Avatar
    John Kohanski

    I live about 10 miles from Sacred Heart in Vernon, and pass the building quite often as it stands very close to a major interstate. I worshipped there once, as I knew the choir director/organist. Unfortunately the biggest catastrophe the parish suffered was not the condemnation of the building but abuse of minors by a sometime pastor.

  10. Jared Ostermann Avatar
    Jared Ostermann

    I know it’s a tangent, but I can’t help commenting that there is more to the Milwaukee story. There were long-lasting public protests, a petition to Archbishop Weakland, and an appeal to Rome against the renovation. The Vatican expressed concerns and acted to delay the project – Weakland ignored this, citing his authority as bishop. No doubt there are detractors in every renovation project, but the scale and high feelings caused by the Milwaukee project are unusual.

    Having played an organ recital there, I have to agree that it was a very unsuccessful effort. The “crown of thorns” oddity is hideous, IMHO, and the tabernacle was placed in a tiny side niche on a pedestal (not an altar), with I believe space for 2-4 kneelers in front. Certainly not visible from the main body of the church, and certainly not conducive to prayer and meditation (especially since the cramped niche is right next to a side entrance, and receives its fair share of foot traffic.

    The whole thing struck me as arrogant and overtly political on Weakland’s part, rather than aesthetically or liturgically grounded. Similar to a certain recent hymnal project, there is an inscription in the cathedral saying that it was renovated “exactly according to the liturgical norms of Vatican II.” I think most here would agree that there is not just one legitimate and “exact” interpretation of the architectural guidance post-Vatican II. I can see a case being made for the much more successful Covington renovation. But I think it is fair to expect that future generations may at least mitigate the Milwaukee results with some tasteful updates.

    To the point of the original post, I would submit that mastery can certainly be found in the artistic appropriation and re-integration of traditional elements into a larger creative whole (as opposed to mimicry). This is a constant in music history – for example Durufle’s use of chant and polyphony, in a modern harmonic language, in his Requiem.

    1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
      Rita Ferrone

      @Jared Ostermann – comment #18:

      You have a right to your opinion. But you, and our other readers, deserve to know that the feeling on the ground at the cathedral itself was and continues to be highly positive about the renovation.

      I was director of liturgy there during the run up to the renovation. Most of those protests to which you refer were fomented from outside, by a small number of very noisy people who already had a history of opposition to the Archbishop and did their best to derail anything he did.

      The fact that Cardinal Medina took a hand in all this is testimony to political connections of this hard-opposition to Weakland, a handful of people who were well-connected in Rome. They did not reflect either the sense of the majority of the faithful on the ground, OR the temperature of the bishops’ conference. As to your charge of arrogance, you have the wrong man.

      In fact, I have it on good authority, from a bishop of another diocese, that in the conference they all knew where this (Medina’s intervention) was coming from and they considered it unjustified meddling.

      The cathedral parishioners are not the only stakeholders in the renovation of a cathedral of course. But the rest of the diocese is hardly as displeased as your remarks would suggest. Diocesan liturgies held at the cathedral continue to get high praise from those who attend.

      As for the implicit suggestion that the acoustics are worse because of the renovation, there is no evidence of that. There is a very active concert series there, and several choirs who sing at liturgy. They continue to make good use of the space. You played there and disliked the corona. Fine. But that doesn’t mean that people couldn’t hear the music as well or better than they did in the space before it was renovated.

      1. Jared Ostermann Avatar
        Jared Ostermann

        @Rita Ferrone – comment #20:
        Actually, the acoustics were excellent. I only mention that I played there because that was what brought me to the cathedral. I also think that the space is better now for concerts, what with the ample space for the organ and choir in the apse. I’m not sure that concert suitability is the best measure of success for a liturgical space, though.

        You certainly have more knowledge of the inner workings of the situation than I. But you have to admit that most renovations, even major ones, do not provoke outrage and protest (albeit from a small, dedicated group) on this scale. That, to me, is a red flag and a balance to the idea that this was entirely populist and positive as a development. Why are so many other dioceses and parishes able to undergo renovations without such a strong reaction? Yes, letters to the bishop and editor, and comments online. But appeals to Rome and formation of organizations and protest in the streets? The Milwaukee case is unusual.

        And all that aside, there is no objective excuse for putting the tabernacle in a hallway niche next to a stairwell, with space for only a few removable kneelers. With a choice like that, it is not surprising that some were offended.

      2. Rita Ferrone Avatar
        Rita Ferrone

        @Jared Ostermann – comment #23:
        Thanks, Jared, but again I must offer an important clarification.

        The “hallway niche” you speak of was the former baptistery. It’s a beautiful space inlaid with marble from all over the state of Wisconsin. There are high windows, giving the space natural light. Before the renovation this was the place we used for the reposition of the Blessed Sacrament over the night of Holy Thursday. It has been hallowed by the prayers of countless faithful who came during the Triduum to pray there. There are only a few kneelers placed there on a daily basis, but the space will accommodate more than 30 people standing. I know, because when it was the baptistery we held prayer services for our catechumens there.

        A place that was once host to the baptism of infants, children, and adults over the generations is not a “hallway niche” in any sense of the term.

        One of the desiderata of those who were concerned about the placement of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel was that it should immediately open onto the main worship space and not be placed in a chapel that would be only entered through a door. We could have used the room that is now the Daily Mass Chapel (and used to be the great sacristy). It was bigger, quite beautiful, and enclosed, so arguably better for adoration. But no, the concern was that the tabernacle be immediately accessible from the main sanctuary. This was a deciding factor. The former Baptistery fit those qualifications admirably.

        No one need be offended at this location. I wonder if perhaps there is some prejudice going into the reaction you describe.

  11. Chase M. Becker Avatar

    While I think our discussion on recent renovation examples has proved interesting and helpful, I would like to point to a quote in the article that intrigued me:

    “The younger generations here they don’t want old-fashioned style, they want modernism. They want something new, which connects to their gear, their iPads, and their modern lifestyle.”

    Do you think this is true? Does this apply only to secular architecture or liturgical architecture as well?

  12. David Philippart Avatar
    David Philippart

    The news show VICE recently did an episode on China’s “ghost towns,” including a faux Paris:

    Architect Mark Wilson recently wrote on the issue of mimicry in contemporary church architecture over at Catholic Lane: And here:

    1. Chase M. Becker Avatar

      @David Philippart – comment #21:
      Both of these pieces are very interesting! Thank you for sharing, David!

  13. Virginia Meagher Avatar
    Virginia Meagher

    I find Fritz Bauerschmidt’s and Jack Wayne’s comments the most interesting, because they are both commenting on how the church actually functions as a space for worship.

    Good architecture should be a feast for the senses that lifts the mind and heart. But a church must first and foremost offer a space that supports the processions and all the actions of the celebrations. A main aisle needs to be wide enough for a coffin and pall bearers (I’ve seen ones that aren’t). An ambo needs to be big enough to hold a Book of the Gospels (we have one in our diocese – newly made – that you can’t even lay an open lectionary on – but it’s beautiful!).

    Looking at church pictures may be a fun diversion. But actually worshiping in a space tells you a lot about whether the architecture was well done or not.

  14. Michael Batcho Avatar

    I would like to comment on the Milwaukee Cathedral renovation, too. I am the Director of Music at the Cathedral and worked with Rita Ferrone and a host of others on the renovation in 2001. She is correct in her statements regarding Cardinal Medina.
    The acoustics of the Cathedral are actually a bit better now. The ceiling of the nave and top of the arches at the side aisle is acoustical tile. Having another coat of paint on it, the surface is slightly less absorbent that it previously was.
    In addition to our own concert series, we host a number of other musical groups throughout the year. Singers enjoy the warm acoustic and instrumentalists have told me that they prefer performing in the cathedral to the basilica.
    No worship space is perfect – acoustically or liturgically. Having gone through a number of home renovations over the years, I know that hindsight is 20/20 and that what sounded like a good idea in the planning stage doesn’t always mean it was a good idea when executed. Nonetheless, I’m overall quite pleased with our renovation and all that it has allowed us to do.

  15. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
    Jordan Zarembo

    All church architecture and renovation is ideological. That should not be merely presumed but held as axiomatic.

    I do not intrinsically dislike the Milwaukee cathedral. The liturgical style of the cathedral worship, and not the architecture, would likely deter me from regular worship in the cathedral. Since architecture facilitates worship, the Milwaukee cathedral perpetuates a certain type of liturgy. Eventually architecture and liturgy become symbiotic and even intrinsically united.

    Since different Roman Catholics desire to worship according to different liturgical ideologies, and will build or restore churches to suit their preferred worship, perhaps the only charitable response is to occasionally worship at a church which is not in one’s liturgical “sub-tradition”. I attend Sunday Mass at my liturgically quite progressive geographical parish at least bimonthly. I have bit my lip when Gaudete and Laetare, for example, have not been explicitly observed. The parish is wealthy enough to purchase a rose set — vestment expense is not the issue. The choice to not emphasize certain aspects of the liturgical calendar is ideological in a non-oppositionally-defiant manner. Rather, the worship reflects the desire of the parish members, as should be the case. The parish never uses Latin in the liturgy, never performs motets or polyphony, and never chants. Not so long ago I only hurled anathemata at this church. I now realize that the assembly should receive the sustenance it requires, just as I am energized by a ten minute choral alleluia verse.

    1. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
      Dale Rodrigue

      @Jordan Zarembo – comment #27:
      Jordan I think you are placing too much emphasis on ideology.
      The cathedral in Milwaukee has an altar and ambo. What is so ideological about that? The altar is in deep into the nave. Does that make it liberal? You can sit in the apse and participate ad orientem, does that make it conservative? Pope B16 stated that he didn’t mind altars in the nave at the cross aisles where they were originally located. Does that now make it traditional? St. John Chrysostom stated the altar should be positioned so worshipers may gather around all sides, that would make it free standing, is it orthodox now?
      Please withold judgment until you worship there!
      I never have but if in Milwaukee I will make a very concerted attempt to attend.

      The beautiful worship, architecture, soaring pipe organ and a vibrant assembly awaits!

  16. Michael Batcho Avatar

    For what it’s worth, we own a set of rose colored vestments and use them on Advent III and Lent IV. Our assembly periodically chants portions of the Mass Ordinary in Latin. The Women’s Choir and Men’s Choir regularly chant the introit in Latin Occasionally the communio is chanted as well. The organs are silenced after the Gloria on Holy Thursday until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil. And all adult choirs sing polyphonic motets. The arrangement of font, altar, ambo, tabernacle and in our case cathedra does not necessarily dictate a certain liturgical style.

    1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
      Jordan Zarembo

      @Michael Batcho – comment #29:

      Michael, I agree that a strong link between liturgical ideology and architecture need not be impervious to modification or even dissolution. I apologize for insinuating this. It is certain possible to merge postmodern Catholic church architecture and selective aspects of the Roman rite’s Latin language heritage. While I am glad that our churches share aspects of liturgical practice, the praxis of celebration within the architecture of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee and the Connecticut “high church” parishes I attend are intrinsically different and cannot be easily reconciled.

      The restorations of both Conn. churches have not only preserved the architectural and ideological construct of the chancel, but indeed amplified the importance of the chancel by renovating altar rails and, in St. Mary, even removing the pulpit from the sanctuary. In these churches, the chanting or singing of the great introits, any proper of the Mass, and the ordinary focuses on the chancel and altar as termini of all congregational attention in highly linear fashion.

      From my perspective, the praise of the great introits and propers, regardless of language, is projected to multiple points within Milwaukee’s cathedral. The placement of the sanctuary towards the center of the cathedral, combined with seating in the round, suggests that both the assembly and the altar share a greater parity within a radically different relationship than the intense altar-ward focus in a chancel-nave-narthex church.

      To return to Chase Becker’s article, some who prefer a greater parity between assembly and altar might dismiss restorations of older churches towards an even more emphatic separation of congregation and sanctuary as efforts not dissimilar to “Thames Town”. Those who worship in a more “hierarchical” church would likely beg to differ. For many of the latter persuasion, their traditional/ized architecture is neither anachronism or nostalgia, but the necessary configuration of architecture for the rites desired by these faithful.

  17. Charles Culbreth Avatar
    Charles Culbreth

    What I think has been omitted from the discussion is the reality that there is a politcal rationale and motive at play deigned by the PRC for such “mimicry.”
    This faux-cathedral is but a fraction of efforts by the PR to recreate Westernism for themselves and for their endowed populace. Problem is, their endowed populace cannot afford to support (live in, visit and spend) and not lose capital equinimity in the process. What’s the raisin duhtruh?
    ‘Specially when it has to do with “Western Religion.”

    1. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
      Dale Rodrigue

      @Charles Culbreth – comment #30:
      Hello mon ami,
      Absolutely agreed and lets not forget PRC’s attempt to “recreate” and control the Catholic Church by appointing bishops along with the other problems with their “official” churches, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Assoc, persecution of the underground Catholic Church and house churches.

  18. Jared Ostermann Avatar
    Jared Ostermann

    “All church architecture and renovation is ideological. That should not be merely presumed but held as axiomatic.”

    Jordan hits the nail on the head – I think this is pretty obvious, although, as he says, the particular community may choose to celebrate in a way that does not conform with the architectural theology. Clearly, the moving of the tabernacle and altar in Milwaukee was a theological statement rather than a practical matter (Christ in the gathered community receives more emphasis than Christ in the reserved hosts). I maintain the “niche” comment (or, alcove, if that is less value-laden). The “hallway” comment refers not to a literal hallway, but to the fact that there is a stairway and entrance next to the alcove – it is a fairly high-traffic zone, and when I tried to pray there I felt very much on display and underfoot. It’s not a ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ prejudice to say that that particular setup is not very conducive to reflection (at least for me).

    At any rate, to return to the subject of the post, mimicry seems much less frowned-upon in music. For example, the neo-classical and neo-baroque compositions of Stravinsky, or Durufle’s masterpiece Requiem. Perhaps what separates the masterwork in music or architecture from the hack copy is the ability to understand the original language you are using, and then incorporate it in a fresh way into a coherent whole. One could imagine a true artist creating a “Tudor fusion” housing development that incorporates Tudor ideas or elements into a genuine Chinese cultural expression.

    Similarly, in church architecture it would be nice to see something besides the “all-modern, afraid of any old elements” or “historical copy” dichotomy playing out.

    1. Chase M. Becker Avatar

      Jared Ostermann :

      …in church architecture it would be nice to see something besides the “all-modern, afraid of any old elements” or “historical copy” dichotomy playing out.

      I agree with this very much. With churches of all denominations closing at such an unprecedented rate, I think one of the greatest challenges (and opportunities) for liturgical architects and designers is how to consciously reuse the art and artifacts of previous generations without being locked into the historical and liturgical style that produced them.

      One of the finest recent examples of this sort of reuse is found at Christ the King Church in Guilderland, NY. An extensive explanation of the design and its reuse of historic elements is available here in .pdf format.

      1. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
        Dale Rodrigue

        @Chase M. Becker – comment #35:

        Chase, What an impressive beautiful church ! Just the way I like them.

        But egads, you’ve presented a church with no altar rail, tabernacle moved somewhere else surrounded by chairs without kneelers, the old reredos used for an archway into the reservation room, no corpus on what appears to be the processional cross, etc.
        Some are not going to be very happy with your example 🙂

      2. Jack Wayne Avatar
        Jack Wayne

        @Dale Rodrigue – comment #36:
        I thought it was rather beautiful, actually. It’s evocative of some of the more experimental pre-Vatican II churches. A shame about the rail, but that could be added at a later date so people can actually gather around the altar for communion rather than approach standing single file, after all. Generally speaking, the place would work for the EF or any other traditional sort of liturgy.

        The oddest thing to me was the shape of the altar. Octagonal rather than square.

      3. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
        Dale Rodrigue

        @Jack Wayne – comment #37:

        Jack, we finally agree on something! (except the altar rail) 🙂

        Actually, I’ve seen communion standing around the altar, quite nice actually.
        Reminds me of St John Chrysostom’s statement that altars should be placed so that worshipers may “gather around all sides”.

        As progressive as I am I think that there should be kneelers or prieu dieu’s in the blessed Sacrament chapel.

        The worst (IMO) were churches in Canada where there were two ministers of communion and everyone rushed up to one or the other sticking out their hands and jostling for a position to “get served”. This was back in the “70’s/’80’s and hopefully they have changed that option.

  19. Jack Wayne Avatar
    Jack Wayne

    I imagine kneelers will be added to the chapel eventually. I figure some of the pictures may have been taken right when the church was finished. There is a long enough history of having the tabernacle in a separate chapel that it isn’t something I’m particularly bothered by providing it is a fitting space. Also, the church basically does have a raredos on the back wall – the shape and style reminds me of a church I went to when I was little that had been built in the 40s.

    The only time I ever saw people stand side-by-side for communion was at an EF Mass. The parish was doing it for a special occasion and I don’t think the priest had really thought about how to handle communion. He simply explained that everyone should stand at the foot of the sanctuary where the communion rail had once been and that he would give communion on the tongue. The best solution I ever saw for not having a communion rail was to have a pair of very long prieu dieus. Each could hold about four people (more if there were kids), and it visually looked like an altar rail. They were light weight and could be easily moved, yet they still allowed groups of people to receive together. While traditionalists tend not to talk about it much, I have noticed that receiving with loved ones is at least a little important to most people. I’ve seen people move over or let someone go ahead of them so couples and families can receive all at once.

    1. John Kohanski Avatar
      John Kohanski

      @Jack Wayne – comment #39:
      It is a moment of sublime grace for me every week to kneel at the rail, directly in front of the altar along side my fellow parishioners, shoulder to shoulder, and receive Holy Communion with them. Talk about a community meal!

      1. Jack Wayne Avatar
        Jack Wayne

        @John Kohanski – comment #40:
        The first time I received at a rail it was not expected. Apparently I had stumbled upon the one church in town that had fought for years to keep their rail. I had no idea what to do, so when kneeling I watched others receive. I was overcome by the communal nature of the experience, and was also struck by the fact that I had never actually seen people receive communion before (you normally just see the back of your fellow communicants).

        I’m sure some will chime in that communion at the rail can be fast like an assembly line too, but I’ve found even the fastest priest can’t take away the sense of community that comes from actually being gathered together. No priest is so fast that you don’t get a moment to kneel there with others and to see the altar. It’s very powerful. Progressives may prefer communion standing, but I think communion at the rail better accomplishes the sense of community progressives seem to desire. The notion that it divides priest and people is seriously overblown, and probably more a result of badly celebrated low Masses among other things.

        I’ve seen old missals and devotional manuals describe the rail as an extension of the altar, and that a priority should be given to making the altar and rail of similar design and materials (and to give them similar linens). When we gather there, we are in a sense gathering at the altar.

      2. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
        Dale Rodrigue

        @Jack Wayne – comment #41:
        When I was an altar boy we had a priest who would take a fistful of hosts and held them in a roll in his hand and go down the line sliding each host from under his thumb onto each tongue. We had a hard time keeping up with him with out patens. Another priest would stop communion and scold kids from the rail and God forbid you didn’t stick out your tongue far enough you were reprimanded “out more” before placing it on their tongue. The priest would “glare” down at you from the end of the rail if he noticed some were slow to get up slowing things down.

        Also all altar rails had the “gate closed”, everybody knew what that meant…keep out!

        Sorry, we all have our opinion but the altar rail is a useless leftover from the middle ages in my opinion and just another excuse to divide the clergy from the laity. When we had ours torn out it was a happy day…

        …. it was if the temple curtain had been torn in two!

      3. Jack Wayne Avatar
        Jack Wayne

        @Dale Rodrigue – comment #42:
        Doesn’t mean communion at a rail has to be like that. My parish has its original rail and never had a gate, and I have never seen any of the behavior you describe.

        It’s a shame some people ruined communion rails for you. I know folks for whom the Novus Ordo was similarly ruined.

  20. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    The aural dimension of a parish church (cathedrals are a bit different) is equally important as its visual dimension. It must function well as a natural acoustical space (that is, before the introduction of amplification systems) so that congregations can hear well for FCAP (listening and vocalizing). Gigantism – which reflects an era when what mattered was what was going on in the sanctuary, not the engagement of the faithful – is out, normatively. So, too, modern plans that attempt to remedy design flaws through the crutch of amplification (I am not saying amplification is verboten, but that it must be a merely supplemental feature, not a design feature).

  21. Tom Piatak Avatar
    Tom Piatak

    A possibly relevant quote, from an architectural guide to Armagh published by Yale, as described in a review in “The Irish Catholic:”

    The interior is “spellbinding, with an atmospheric brilliance owing to the stupendous scale of tall, narrow nave and a superabundance of shimmering mosaic decoration”. However Mulligan’s enthusiasm is tempered. “Twice reordered, the sanctuary has been at the forefront of post-Vatican II architectural vandalism, destroyed with an uncaring insensitivity to its High Victorian architecture.”

    (Here’s the link, for those who are

  22. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
    Dale Rodrigue

    We’ll just agree to disagree.

  23. M. Jackson Osborn Avatar
    M. Jackson Osborn

    JW and DR –
    The experiences each of you describe teach us not that the presence or absence of the rail in and of itself is benificent spiritually: rather, your anecdotes remind us that priests have the same human pedigree as the rest of humanity and will manifest this regardless of altar rails or oecumenical councils. The priests described by Dale are/were reprehensible, and were that way whether the altar rail was there or not. One can only wonder why such irreverent scolds were in holy orders! I must admit, though, that I find receiving at the altar rail at my Anglican Use parish a far more profound experience than being in line elsewhere.

  24. Jack Wayne Avatar
    Jack Wayne

    I agree, MJO. Priests are in some ways like school teachers. A bad teacher can completely turn a child off to a certain subject for the rest of his or her life, just as a bad priest can turn someone off to a particular type of liturgy or even to the Church all together.

    IMO, many traditional liturgical practices that are quite wonderful on their own were completely ruined by the type of priest Dale described.

  25. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
    Dale Rodrigue

    Incidentally, the scolding priest died in 1976. In 2006 the diocese admitted he had abused 2 altar boys. Personally, when I was an altar boy he always behaved appropriately. However, when I received a $1.50 tip from a groom for serving their nuptial mass the priest later said to me it was too much money then took the $1.50 from me and gave me back 0.50 cents (after the groom left of course). God forbid you didn’t lift his chasuble and grab his biretta after bowing to the other altar boy otherwise he would sit on his biretta and then he was really upset. What does an 11 year old do? Too scared to say anything. Now I know what it’s called, clericalism.

    The other priest who rolled hosts in his hands and dispensed “Pez style” was a temporary priest who was an OMI who bragged how quickly he could give communion. Oh the stories I could tell. When Vatican II came along, no more bowing, biretta’s, what a breath of fresh air.
    Regardless of priest or location there was this overwhelming adoration of liturgical praxis, how to do this, do that, bow this way, that way. When Vatican II came along it was wow! That whole system of attention to that pretty liturgical stuff was dismantled and stripped away. It was about God and not how to properly cross over to the other side w/ the water during the asperges. No scolding from the priest or parishoners who watched your every move ready to pounce. Worshipping God now didn’t involve all this stuff we had to do. Now I can receive communion by walking up to the minister, look them in the eye, receive the host in the hand while being told “Body of Christ”. Now my amen to that statement means something. No more assembly line altar rail where the priest often didn’t even bother to look at you, whether in Florida , New England or anywhere else, all the same.
    It wasn’t the individual priest or individual church, it was the whole aloof Tridentine system of liturgical praxis that lost God in the quest to get the details right so the whole thing is “done right”.

  26. Jack Wayne Avatar
    Jack Wayne

    I guess we really will just have to agree to disagree. What you describe is not my experience here and today, in 2013. I’m not trying to discount your experience, and it probably would have affected me in the same way had I lived back then. However, I have to live my faith and call it as I see it according to my own experiences here today. Much of the Tridentine system was bad, and I like that I can participate in the Tridentine liturgy without all the clericalism that had arisen by the time the Council was called. I feel fortunate I can enjoy the best of both worlds.

  27. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    If the OF were proscribed, and the EF prescribed, you would very likely find the bad praxis resurgent.

    1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
      Jordan Zarembo

      @Karl Liam Saur – comment #51:

      Certainly, there are priests who abuse the OF as well (although OF abuse is not so much haste but rather disrespect for the rubrics and text). While I agree with you, criticism about poor celebration travels in both directions. Heck, once I heard Sunday Divine Liturgy in Ukrainian at a Greek Catholic monastery. The priest said the closest analogue to EF low Mass I can reckon. Severely truncated entrances, no server, minimal singing, over in an hour soup to nuts. The little entrance consisted of the priest opening the left door of the iconostasis and briefly flashing the evangelion at the congregation.

      There’s a place for the “low Divine Liturgy”, as there is for low Mass. Do not both make present the living Lord? Is not the Eucharist of these liturgies enough to sustain us in grace? The assembly-praxis school as well as the ritual-praxis school of liturgical theology must stop presenting hyper-idealized but contrary to fact liturgies as Ideas to which all must aspire. Christ’s emptying of himself at Divine Liturgy/Mass takes place within a sinful world for sinners. The only ideal liturgy is likely the beatific vision.

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        @Jordan Zarembo – comment #53:
        I just don’t promote minimalism. I acknowledge it.

    2. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
      Dale Rodrigue

      @Karl Liam Saur – comment #51:
      KLS +1

  28. Jack Wayne Avatar
    Jack Wayne

    Possibly, but what Dale described is probably more a result of a culture that no longer exists, and which would need to be very purposefully rebuilt regardless of what liturgy is used.

    There’s a Bugs Bunny cartoon where a hat truck crashes on a windy day while Elmer Fudd is hunting Bugs Bunny. The hats blow out of the truck and land on each character’s head, causing them to assume a personality that goes with hat. When the hat they are wearing gets knocked off or blown away, they assume their normal personalities until another hat lands on their head. Liturgy doesn’t really work that way even though it does inform how people believe certain things. Putting people at the EF doesn’t turn them into 1950s people.

    Were the EF the only allowed liturgy tomorrow, it would assume a lot of OF traits and characteristics, and people have written about how modern day EF communities are different from 50 years ago.

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