“Warming” Modernist Church Architecture: A Response and a Way Forward

In this article Patrick Dolan thoughtfully engages Michael DeSanctis’ article, “The Truth About “Cold,” Modernist Church Architecture”

In his article “The Truth about ‘Cold’ Modernist Architecture” in the March/April 2020 issue of Emmanuel Dr. Michael DeSanctis deftly describes the concern and frustration a number of Catholic faithful and even some clergy feel about many of the churches constructed since the Second Vatican Council and their “cold” character. Despite the broad strokes with which he necessarily has to paint his summary of this discussion, he respectfully encapsulates the concerns of both sides of the debate on church architecture. One can also pick up hints in his article, however, about the deeper debate over whether the church building should be considered the “house of God” and indeed the throne of God here on earth, or whether its focus is on the “people of God” and serves primarily as an edifice in which they operate.[1] One can also sense a concern over the underlying theology of the eucharistic celebration and enduring presence of that most blessed of sacraments, and the way this theology is embodied in that architecture.

Dr. DeSanctis readily admits that some recent church buildings do indeed lack much in terms of traditional liturgical beauty, but he also laments the fact that people’s emotions are often tied up so thoroughly in such issues that a rational and “systematic analysis of specific church buildings on which sound architectural criticism traditionally relies” has not surfaced in these discussions.[2] In an attempt to respond to that request, this article will examine some of those issues, but more from a theological perspective than an engineering one.[3] It will also propose a way of reconciling these theological concerns, holding the “house of God” ecclesiology together with the “people of God” ecclesiology, as well as offer some steps toward “warming” those otherwise “cold” structures.

Form Follows Function—Restricted by Resources

The central principle in nature and architecture is that form follows function: the structure of the edifice is determined by its use.[4] Banks have places for tellers — and have to have a vault. Wine cellars have similar vaults but have casks rather than tellers. Airports have hangars, control towers, and reception areas, etc. The ancient Greek basilica style was used for everything that needed a gathering space for people to be protected from the weather. It had rows of columns spaced only as far apart as the length of the wooden beams the Greeks could acquire. Churches used that structure too, because it was all they had.

When the Romans took the round arch from the Etruscans and spun it to form a dome, columns could be reduced to outlying pillars needed to support that dome — but weight became an issue to contend with. When vaulting developed in early medieval Europe, columns reappeared, but their spacing was determined by the size of the span rather than the height of Greek trees, and buttresses were added to spread the roof’s weight. Gothic architecture heightened the arches and let the buttresses “fly” to reduce the size of the pillars and increase the number of windows available within the load-supporting walls. Even though these structures did not work well for castles that needed strong rather than fragile glass-filled walls, they were used for many large buildings and can still readily be seen in the graceful architecture of university buildings on Oxford, Cambridge and many other institutions of education. With the invention of steel beams and large panes of glass, structures like the crystal palace in London in the 1800s could almost completely replace brick and stone with glass — and become the model for contemporary greenhouses. Churches have used columns, domes, vaulting, and even steel and glass to glorify God in each age as these tools developed. As USA President Teddy Roosevelt regularly advised: “Do the best you can with what you have where you are.”[5]

Following that perspective of “doing what one can…”, churches throughout the centuries have used whatever materials and architecture those materials supported but adapted them to climate and terrain. Heavily snowy areas often had tall peaked roofs covering either a large gothic nave (cathedrals in Vienna, Cologne, and New York, etc.) or “A-frame” wooden structures throughout Scandinavia; whereas tropical areas had to deal with larger amounts of rain, wind or earthquakes. Demonstrating that though “…where you are” flavors the kinds of design that is functional, these structures suggest that any building, however modest the means and materials available, can be made into a fitting location for both individual and collective worship — appropriate to the resources and culture of those using that church building.

Both Structure and Decoration are Determined by Need and Culture


When one enters a church building, one hopes (needs) to be drawn to God. Hence the lines of the church should draw one’s focus to what is sacred there. For Catholics the central focus is the altar.

Years ago, when everyone faced exactly the same way toward the altar and tabernacle (sometimes lost in a gorgeous reredos filled with statues and candle sticks) it was easier to think of the church as the home of God where God’s throne welcomed those who came (individually) to adore. The movement of the main altar to the “crossing” in many cruciform churches has allowed more people to get closer to the action of the eucharistic sacrifice and more easily enables “full, active conscious participation” — but it sometimes also lets them see beyond that altar to the other members of the mystical body of Christ who are participating with them in the eucharistic sacrifice.[6] Though this is not a new development, for St. Peters in Rome has had faithful on all four sides of its high altar, and gothic cathedrals not only had monks’ stalls that faced each other rather than the altar, and there are semi-circular arrangements of presbyter chairs around the bishop’s cathedra in ancient cathedrals, the issue here is one of focus.[7]

Quite appropriately, in the Emmanuel article immediately preceding that of DeSantis, Fr. Dennis Billy describes how British Catholic author, Caryll Houselander, sees an intimate connection between each Catholic attending the Eucharist as part of the mystical body and the eucharistic action itself: “The Eucharist is the glue that holds it [mystical body] together. … It enables us to share in Christ’s priesthood by allowing us to offer our lives up with his…”[8] The altar together with the others joining in the sacrifice of Christ on that altar, are enhancers of that Church service; so why should a glimpse of anyone be seen as a distraction — any more than a glimpse of the altar boys years ago might have been? Moreover, why focus on only two dimensions? If one sees the offering as rising to heaven like incense, could not our own sights be “lifted up” just as the intro the preface asks that our hearts be?[9]

The Trappist’s “culture” would consider any and all decoration a distraction from their spirituality rather than an assistance to their pathway to God.

Access to the tabernacle is also very important: for liturgy, ministry to the sick and homebound, and private prayer. Some large cathedrals with lots of visitors and many side chapels have secured the tabernacle more safely and devoutly in one of their side chapels. Some contemporary suburban churches, where heating or security is a concern, have also made eucharistic chapels. These are often “behind” the central altar in a location that can be accessed (and separately heated and cooled) for smaller groups at daily mass. Some churches even have the tabernacle built into the wall so it can be viewed from the outside for adoration at any hour of the day or night. It’s many uses help determine its placement.


The presider and liturgical ministers need clear access to the altar (and pulpit and chair), and the ability to bring the gifts of the faithful to that altar and distribute the Body (and Blood) of Christ to the faithful. Does the seating arrangement allow visibility of the presider at those locations? Does the shape of the church and the audio system allow the liturgical ministers to be heard? Can the lector and cantor get to the pulpit easily and relatively silently? Do the aisles allow for ease of movement and respect when distributing Communion? Are the sacred furnishings (altar, chair, pulpit, and anything else like candles and the paschal candle, etc.) constructed in keeping with the style of the church and in proportion to its size? If these questions can be answered affirmatively, the church structure is doing what it is supposed to do. If not, a good architect can often offer just a few adjustments to make that happen.


Figure 1. Gethsemane Abbey Chapel, Kentucky

Different communities and different seasons of the liturgical year will require different amounts and styles of decoration — but critically in proportion to and in keeping with the design of the church. Some decorations are permanent. They can be as overwhelming as the baroque marble accouterments in St. Peters in Rome, Melk Abbey in Austria, or as simple as the Trappist monastery chapel at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky (see Figure 1) which has clean lines, minimal decoration — and a wondrous amount of silence. Their church design is part of their spiritual style, which chants psalms seven times a day, and allows the abbot to bless the monks (and even visitors) with holy water at the conclusion of Compline — all surrounded by that pervasive silence. Their “culture” would consider any and all decoration a distraction from their spirituality rather than an assistance to their pathway to God.


Figure 2 Teresa of Calcutta Parish, Fairdale, Kentucky

Likewise, some large spaces have little permanent decoration (or ones that can be revealed or hidden by moving a few panels between different denominational services as is done in many multi-use military chapels) but need seasonal decorations with large lines of color to focus the attention of the faithful on that altar area. Appropriate liturgical art and seasonal decoration can “warm” church interiors that may seem “cold.” A very contemporary designed church named after St. Teresa of Calcutta used swaths of red color inserted into the building’s design for the feast of Pentecost (see Figure 2). One huge banner complimented those colors — augmented by the poinsettias kept live and radiant each year from Christmas. Though those large decorations dwarf the liturgical ministers, they fit in with the size of the church better than lots of tiny decorations and help focus the attention on the altar. A similarly wonderful use of large amounts of seasonal color can be seen in the many “live-streamed” masses from various contemporary large churches seen recently due to the pandemic and quarantine of 2020. Moreover, even when one has few materials available and little time in which to work, structures as “cold” as an open warehouse can be made truly uplifting — as done in Iraq on Christmas eve 2004 with a few pieces of cloth, some cut up cardboard and colored chalk to make a nativity set and tree (see Figure 3). This gave a wonderful contrast to the bleak sand and grey colors the soldiers saw every day.

Figure 3 Christmas Eve Mass, December 24, 2004

Culture can also include history. Sometimes in renovating a large church to provide for a separate daily Mass chapel with the tabernacle available in a more serene and often silent space, one can reuse special pieces from a previous portion of the church — or even an older building that had given way to the present edifice. Two beautiful examples that come to mind are the reuse of windows from an older, abandoned inner-city church into a newer church where the population has now relocated; and the resizing of what had been a side altar in a large rural church to fit just right into the former convent chapel used now as their daily mass location. Some items have a place in parishioners’ hearts, and thus deserve a place in their churches as well — and with good architectural support can be made to fit wonderfully.

Finally, how silence connects with sacred architecture is a special case. Some worshippers might desire that everyone be silent before Mass. Others might prefer prelude music to set the atmosphere by wrapping the worshippers in the beauty of that music the way sunlight through stained glass windows wraps them in color. Still others may feel isolated and depressed by silence, and come to church to be lifted up by the other images of God there in the faithful who are fellow members of the mystical body of Christ.[10] Some others may feel the need for movement before Mass, much as David who danced before the Ark of the Covenant, or the entrance procession in the Zairean Rite where the participants come in dancing. The dignity and wonder of the eucharistic sacrifice are not automatically lost by an absence of silence before or after Mass; but the needs of individual spiritual styles deserve to be acknowledged as legitimate and real — and accommodated in some way.


The perceived “coldness” of some 20th century architecture, much of it from the 1930’s & inspired by the Bauhaus school, was not a function of the Second Vatican Council. If anything, the council drew the faithful closer to the altar with a variety of seating arrangements and let the focus be more on the altar and what transpires there, than on the tabernacle — because the people were participating more fully and knew what was going on. Nor did the Council wish for any disrespect in the house of God. In fact, the movement of the tabernacle to safer chapels where silence could more readily be observed increased that chance for prayerful serenity.

By using “form follows function” and “do what you can with what you have where you are” communities can use both the structure of the church building as well as the permanent or seasonal decorations to go a long way toward “warming” an otherwise seemingly “cold” edifice. With the altar as the focus, using warm, welcoming colors and lines in the right proportion to the size of the building that draw one to the altar, and “just enough” seasonal decoration, the church building can welcome people both when celebrating public liturgies and when open for private prayer. All architecture, even church architecture, is only as “cold” as one allows it to be. Let us warm it with our hearts.



  1. Michael DeSanctis, “The Truth About ‘Cold’ Modernist Church Architecture” Emmanuel, Vol 126, #2 (2020) p 93
  2. Ibid, p 92, 95
  3. The reason is that this is a theological journal rather than an architectural or engineering one, and my own background includes a MA in Eucharistic theology, a STD in Moral, and a PhD in synthetic Chemistry as well as more than 40 years as a Catholic priest, having served in many cultures and 3 different rites/usages on 6 continents.
  4. This is evident in chemistry in isomers, and in biochemistry in the folding of proteins, in biology in the structure of conch shells, etc.
  5. See “Thought for the Day at Wordless.com on Fri March 6, 2020”
  6. Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy # 14
  7. Ibid
  8. Billy, Caryll Houselander on the Eucharist, Emmanuel, Vol 126 #2, March/April 2020, p 90
  9. Psalm 141:2
  10. Patrick Dolan, “Value Archetypes, a Multi-faceted Spirituality” Emmanuel, Vol 99 # 4 (May 1993) p. 202 shows that there are 7 pathways (styles of prayer) that are truly spiritual, not just silence or peace.


About Patrick Dolan

Patrick Dolan is a recently retired diocesan priest from the Archdiocese of Louisville, KY, and an army chaplain. He was Senior chaplain in the US National Guard, responsible for all the states and territories including 1500 clergy and 365,000 soldiers. He is current chair of the Louisville section of the American Chemical Society and “visiting scholar” at Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium working on integrating science and theology.