Things to Consider

One Hundred Years of Change in Catholic Worship Space Design

August 16, 2007


The design of Catholic worship spaces has changed considerably in the past century. What might the next century bring? For one to imagine the amount of change that can occur in Catholic Church design over the next hundred years, it may be instructive to peer at the last one hundred.

One hundred years ago…

Churches did not have electric lighting, air conditioning, sound reinforcement systems, smoke alarms, fire sprinkler systems, electronic security, hearing-assist systems, handicap accessibility, double-glazed windows, or protective exterior glazing for stained glass...the list goes on. They did have gas lights, boilers, drafty windows, smaller pews, side altars, several tabernacles, choir lofts, basements under, many steps up...that list goes on too. Parking lots had yet not been invented, so had not yet begun to ubiquitously surround our Churches in asphalt.

Churches were nearly 100% “essence” (e.g., foundations, floors, walls, ceilings, roofs, furnishings, and art) and 0% “infrastructure” (e.g., heating, ventilating, air conditioning, electric lighting, security, sound reinforcement, dimming systems, and computers). Not so for today’s churches. To appreciate the difference this makes, let’s say that, after factoring for inflation, a church that had $1,000 to spend for construction of a new worship space a hundred years ago, would have the same $1,000 to spend for construction of a new worship space today. A century ago, nearly the entire $1,000 could be spent on “essence,” making it possible, for example, to have more craftsmanship and better materials (stone or brick instead of stucco; plaster instead of drywall; stone floors instead of carpet). Today, $400 to $600 of the $1000 would likely be spent on infrastructure – all of the technology. This would leave only about half the money for “essence” that existed one hundred years ago. This might account for some of the disappointment some people feel about current church architecture. For example, cheaper building materials are used so that there are enough funds for the necessary technology. There’s often less money in the budget for art and architectural details.

Most building components were individually made. Now, many building components are modularly sized and mass-produced.

A parish physical plant of one hundred years ago might have a church with 500 seats or so, a half-story above ground, with a hall a half-story below ground underneath it. It might have a rectory for multiple priests, a convent for multiple nuns, and a school. It might be located in an urban setting, with little or no off-street on-site parking.

A parish physical plant today might have a church on grade with 1500 seats, with an adjacent parish life center. Odds are, probably no school. Surely no convent. The priest probably lives alone in a house in a neighborhood near the church. There is a sea of paved parking all around the church. In the U.S., we average just over two people per car when we come to church, and when our parking lots are 80% or so full, we perceive them to be full. At 100 or so car parking spaces per acre, and a 1500-seat church, that could be nine or so acres just for parking!  Today’s parishes typically require a lot more land.

Choir lofts were the norm one hundred years ago. Prior to electronic sound reinforcement systems, the best location for a choir to be heard in a long, high, narrow church was up front. Since that turf is taken for other purposes in a Catholic church, the second best place acoustically was elevated and behind, at the other end of the long, high, narrow space. This separated location contributed, at least somewhat, to the parishioners in the pews not singing.

Today, choirs are often shoe-horned in on the main floor up front near the sanctuary in less than satisfactory environs in churches not designed for this. New Catholic churches can be designed to accommodate music ministry space that can lead and facilitate congregational singing, while not intruding into the sanctuary or being an eyesore of music stands, microphones, bulky keyboard consoles, and wires. And, in certain cases, choir lofts should be considered today.

Baptisteries rode a steady decline from being spaces to becoming furniture – often small fonts, above the ground, with lids, and located in rear alcoves. Then came the holy water dipping dishes at all the doors, which further diluted the significance of a baptistery and of the primal symbol of water.  The momentum of Vatican II liturgical renewal has brought back the baptistery as a space, with a substantial water component, the font, capable at least of pouring water freely over the heads of adults and of immersion (not submersion) of infants. The baptistery is most commonly now located just inside the nave, centered at the center aisle. This requires encounter, touching, signing, and memory, as we move from our parking space in the lot to our parking space in the pew. Witness, as examples, the cathedrals in Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Covington.

Other present realities that will impact the next one hundred years of church design…

An increasing number of Catholics, a decreasing number of priests. The Catholic population in the United States is growing slightly (about a 10% increase between 1990 – 2001), while the availability of priests to serve them is falling precipitously. This quite profoundly impacts the quality of essence extant in our current Catholic worship facilities.

In the 1980s, most of the Catholic churches that we architects and liturgical design consultants served, asked for worship spaces that could seat 500 to 800. Today, most new Catholic churches are required to accommodate 1000 to 2000 seats. This is a profound paradigm shift, from only one generation to the next. Our new churches can be 2 to 4 times bigger now. This not only suggests another reason for the “dumbing down” of quality building materials, but it implicates much change in liturgical ritual behavior. For instance, the best “seeing” occurs 45 to 65 feet from the presider, within a cone of vision of about 150 degrees. This can just about accommodate to 500 to 800 people in a Catholic church from the 1980s, but not the 1000 to 2000 of today. Full, conscious and active participation of all in the liturgy is compromised in these bigger spaces.

If we have the same amount of money tomorrow (after factoring for inflation) to build a new worship space, that we did a generation ago, we have to build, perhaps, 3 to 4 times bigger now, with the same budget. Quantity way up means quality way down.

Accessibility consciousness and laws have dramatically affected Catholic church architecture. Gone are processional elevated entrances with formal steps. Worship spaces are on grade now. This pushes lower levels lower, and with modern codes requiring fire separated construction between levels, elevators, fire sprinklers, and fire fighting access, these lower levels are becoming more and more expensive. Thus, on-grade adjacent space that is the same price or less is favored.

What will the next one hundred years bring? Let us hope that efficiency will abide.

Bill Brown, AIA, NCARB, ACLS  (1950 - 2008) lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  He was an architect, liturgical design consultant and historical preservation consultant.

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