Arts & Books Books

Actually, modern churches can be beautiful

Clifton Cathedral in Bristol: given a critical thumbs-up

Not all 20th-century churches look like meat-packing plants, says Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith

100 Churches in 100 Years
By the Twentieth Century Society
Batsford, 208pp, £25/$35

The late Alice Thomas Ellis, contributor to this magazine and spirited controversialist, was fond of declaring that if you visited any English town and asked to be taken to see its ugliest building, that building would invariably be its Catholic church. Here comes a volume, cataloguing 100 churches built in the 20th century by a variety of denominations, which goes at least some way to proving her wrong.

Visitors to Bath, for example, will find in Our Lady & St Alphege an almost perfect representation of an ancient Roman basilica, the work of none other than Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who, unsurprisingly, is one of the heroes of this book. St Alphege’s is made out of the very best materials such as Bath stone rubble, and, importantly, conserves its original light fittings. The floor is a Cosmatesque pavement made out of linoleum, still in situ. Unlike in so many other places, no parish priest has trashed and burned the fittings that are integral to the design and planning of every place of worship.

On this matter I speak with some feeling: the school chapel in which I prayed as a boy, dating from 1965 (not mentioned in this book, but a pretty fine example of neo-Byzantine work), has had, like so many churches in the land, its interior wrecked by unsympathetic and unnecessary reordering, and lost many of its fittings, leaving it a husk of its former self.

It used to be the fashion to dismiss works like St Alphege’s as pastiche architecture, a judgment that the person in the pew often found inexplicable. With greater accuracy, St Alphege’s could be called traditional – just as theology has to be seen as part of a conversation over time, so too does architecture.

The more innovative works of Scott, such as Our Lady of the Assumption in Northfleet, Kent, completed in 1916, which strongly resembles his later Battersea Power Station in its monumentality, is undoubtedly a fine building, and in continuity with many of the great churches that preceded it, though one wonders if any of Scott’s more audacious churches ever get anywhere near the majesty of Guildford Cathedral, the work of Sir Edward Maufe. He, for his part, is overshadowed to my mind by some of the smaller scale work of FX Verlade, whose three churches mentioned here are all in Lancashire. An extended article on Verlade at the end of the book is a welcome introduction to a church architect who deserves to be better known.

And if you are in Bootle, Merseyside, do go and see St Monica’s, which is very far from ugly.

In a book of this type, cathedrals, the most prominent of churches, which have the most money lavished on them, clearly feature a great deal. It is interesting to note that Clifton is given the critical edge over Liverpool’s Catholic cathedral, and that the much more recent Brentwood, the work of Quinlan Terry, is dealt with in a rather perfunctory way.

Two abbeys get a look in: the marriage of old and new that is Douai, a church completed after a long gap in work, and in a different idiom entirely, which has been much admired; and the stark and austere Worth Abbey. None of these really approach Maufe’s Guildford Cathedral or Sir Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral as world-class buildings.

At the other end of the spectrum, in a traditionally neglected field, two crematorium chapels are included. These are Mortonhall in Edinburgh (by Spence) and Mid-Glamorgan (by Maxwell Fry). Given that these chapels are the scenes of important events, and the only chapels that many people ever enter, it is shocking that so little architectural expertise has been lavished on crematoria. But Fry and Spence show that it can be done.

The tragedy is, as these examples of excellence show us, that we do not have to put up with the depressing, the ugly and the banal. We really can do better.

We all have our views on architecture – which is hardly surprising, as we all have little choice but to live, work and worship in the buildings provided for us. Bad architecture causes dismay to many of us, and its source, at least when it comes to churches, lies in bad theology. A church that looks like a meat-packing plant (and there are one or two in this volume) betrays a vision of God’s majesty that is severely lacking.

As for the good architects, though I know nothing of their spiritual lives, I hazard a guess that each one of them was in some way close to God.