Parish Design Projects: Developing Meaning, Method and Symbolic Expression

July 28, 2008

Editor's Note:  The text below is the Introduction only.  To read the entire article, please click here for a link to the PDF document.


ExteriorParishes are complex spiritual, theological, cultural, social and interpersonal realities. To a greater or lesser degree, this complexity is given physical form and expression in the parish’s buildings. Even simple parish spaces have much to say both about us and to us. If we pause to reflect on a parish building, we soon realize that we are in a place that embodies a tremendous range of issues. The history of the parish, aspects of liturgical style, and pastoral and theological issues can be detected in the form of its spaces. Art, aesthetics, symbolism, the quality of the parish’s interpersonal relationships, sensibilities and values, functional demands and financial resources are also evident.

As satisfying or disappointing as our parish spaces may be, one thing is certain: they do not last forever. All buildings fail eventually or are destroyed by calamity. When this occurs all of the issues referred to above, plus many others, are given voice in a huge range of opinions, values, facts and emotions. Questions arise around how to express the call to love, around liturgical styles, image, symbolism and visual appearance, and around how to spend hard-earned money. Generally, it takes some time to articulate all of the relevant issues and the values inherent in them, additional time to identify the role and priority each has in the life of the parish, more time to organize all of them into a coherent structure of significance, and further time to embody this significance in built form. The overarching process by which we do so is commonly referred to as making meaning. Meaning-making is essential to our nature as human beings; we fundamentally need to observe the things and events around us, find intelligibility in them, relate them to ourselves and create meaningful dimensions of society and culture.

FrontThe process by which we design our parish spaces, then, is a process of making meaning. It is a complex, highly articulated and deeply satisfying form of generating meaning. This article will briefly examine some aspects of meaning as found in church design projects, methods available for generating meaning and resultant symbolic expressions. Specifically, we will focus on one aspect of the design process: the selection of an architectural “vocabulary” for the building. For our purposes here, “vocabulary” is taken as meaning simultaneously the building’s morphology, the rules inherent in generating the morphology, and the symbolism carried by the morphology.

As a means of focusing the discussion further we will pose a question that arises from a curious “disconnect” that appears to occur on many contemporary parish building projects across North America. The apparent disconnection lies in the following:

• on the one hand, there is the astonishing nature of a parish: a collection of people literally sharing the very life of God, who are called to authentically embody (preach) the Good News in all ways possible (spiritually, physically, intellectually, morally, creatively, etc.) to a contemporary society in a contemporary place and at a specific time in history (today);

• on the other hand, there is the fact that the architectural vocabulary or vocabularies so often chosen for parish spaces are ones that give form to and symbolize the liturgy, human and spatial relationships and ideas of 400-1000 years ago, i.e., neo-Romanesque and neo-Renaissance vocabularies, or massaged versions of same. Figures 1-1 through 1-3 illustrate an example from the end of the 20th-century.

Our question is:

“Since Vatican II, why do many parishes and design practitioners choose architectural vocabularies for parish projects that emulate vocabularies that arose 600-1000 years ago rather than vocabularies that speak of present culture?"

InteriorIt is reasonable to say that the people choosing “neo-architecture” would never willingly choose to live their day-to-day lives with such things as the health care, clothing, economics, transportation systems, judiciary, food supply, communications or virtually any other expression of culture from 400-1000 years ago, so it is curious that they so widely choose the spatial expressions of those times, rather than ones of their own age, for the places in which they gather to celebrate the deepest relationship of their lives.

Rationales sometimes offered for choosing “neo-architecture” are:

• these forms are the traditional architecture of the Church;

• traditional forms are necessary in order to emphasis the hierarchical nature of the Church;

• it is not possible to build beautiful churches using modern forms;

• building using traditional forms is necessary in order to avoid cutting ourselves off from our past;

• building in a contemporary way results in the acceptance of any novel form being canonized as legitimate innovation;

• traditional forms are necessary to combat the secularism of the present age;

• traditional forms are necessary in order to avoid architecture that speaks only of material and functional needs;

• contemporary forms are devoid of spiritual meaning, that is, they cannot communicate the life of God.

Although touted by some, these reasons do not appear necessarily compelling. It seems reasonable to ask: “Is this so?” and “Is there an alternative explanation for why ‘neo-architectural vocabulary’ is often selected?” It is the author’s belief that a more meaningful rationale can be found in the work of Bernard Lonergan, S.J. To illustrate the point, this article will examine aspects of Lonergan’s work and the work of other authors who augment or extend Lonergan. It will then go on to propose an alternative approach to the use of “neo-architecture.”

The article is divided into the following sections:

Part 1 provides an introduction, poses the question to be addressed, and indicates the path to be followed in addressing the question;

Part 2 briefly reviews Lonergan’s understanding of the human process of knowing (making meaning);

Part 3 briefly reviews Lonergan’s description of three stages of meaning in Western culture;

Part 4 reviews Lonergan’s concepts of horizons of meaning and transposition;

Part 5 views the selection of “neo-architecture” in the light of Lonergan’s work and poses a supplementary question;

Part 6 describes sources for an authentic contemporary design process;

Part 7 provides an overview of the schematic design for St. Gianna’s Roman Catholic Church, Winnipeg, where an alternative to Logos design process was used;

Part 8 reviews the relationship between James Fowler stages faith development and building vocabulary;

Part 9 offers concluding remarks;

Appendix 1 reviews Terry Tekippe’s work on scientific and primordial knowing;

Appendix 2 reviews Thomas Berry’s reflections on the lack of a cosmology in the West;

Appendix 3 reviews Michael Polanyi’s work on tacit knowing;

Appendix 4 reviews Sharon Butala’s description of one form of primordial knowing.

A Reference Abbreviations/ Bibliography page is provided at the end of Appendix 4.

Anyone with even minimal knowledge of Bernard Lonergan’s work will realize that this article can, at best, only hint at subjects requiring much greater discussion. However, there is often value in at least hinting at issues and we will proceed on that basis.

Michael Boreskie, B.A., M.Arch, MAA, the principal of Michael Boreskie Architect Inc., is an architect, liturgical design consultant and facilitator who works across Canada and in the United States. He has developed a step-by-step guide for parish building committees called Many Values-Many Voices: The Who, What, Where, When Process for Church Building Projects©.

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Photos provided by Michael Boreskie

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