Big, bold and made of concrete: Why these European churches defy tradition

Big, bold and made of concrete: Why these European churches defy tradition - Arts and Culture - News

Discovering the Awe-Inspiring Modernist Churches of Europe: An Interview with Photographer Jamie McGregor Smith

Born and raised in the UK, photographer Jamie McGregor Smith was accustomed to traditional churches with historic architecture. However, upon moving to Vienna, Austria, in 2018, he found himself captivated by the contemporary brutalist-style cathedrals and churches spread across Europe. This fascination led McGregor Smith on a four-year journey to explore and document close to 200 modernist places of worship constructed in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Modernist Pilgrimage:
McGregor Smith’s intrigue with these modern churches evolved into a series of train journeys across Europe, during which he captured 139 stunning photographs. These buildings, designed as feats of sculpture, engineering, and architecture, serve not only spiritual purposes but also transport visitors to an otherworldly realm.

Modernist Churches: Bridging the Past and Future:
The emergence of these modernist churches can be traced back to the aftermath of World War II. During the Second Vatican Council, held between 1962 and 1965, Catholic and evangelical churches sought to adapt to a rapidly changing world. One of the topics discussed was architectural design, with young priests collaborating with modernist architects to create structures that represented a brighter future.

The Impact of World War II on Modernist Church Design:
As the world moved forward from the devastating impact of World War II, both Catholic and evangelical churches recognized the importance of adapting to the times. In an effort to create a more optimistic future, they sought partnerships with modernist architects. This collaboration led to the emergence of churches that reflected a unique blend of modern aesthetics and spiritual significance.

Commonalities in Modernist Church Design:
McGregor Smith’s photographs reveal several commonalities among modernist churches, such as the extensive use of concrete. This material, which was both economical and versatile, allowed architects to experiment with pioneering designs that pushed the boundaries of traditional architecture.

Embracing the Inexpressible:
Both the architects and McGregor Smith faced the challenge of capturing the indescribable essence of these churches through their respective mediums. They drew inspiration from the concept of apophatic architecture, which emphasizes the limitations of human language and concepts in fully conveying the greatness of God. This led to the use of negative space, playful manipulation of light and dark, and an omniscient perspective in their designs.

Photographing Emptiness:
As McGregor Smith traveled from one church to the next, he often found that they were mostly empty or uninhabited. He appreciated the quiet stillness of these spaces and felt a sense of sadness that these architectural icons, which once brought communities together, were now underappreciated.

Engaging Societies through Religion and Design:
The modernist churches of Europe present opportunities for societies to engage with religion, design, and each other in new ways. However, to remain relevant and captivate the interest of future generations, religious institutions must continue to adapt and evolve with the times.

The Legacy of “Sacred Modernity”:
McGregor Smith’s thought-provoking photography project, “Sacred Modernity: The Holy Embrace of Modernist Architecture,” is a testament to the enduring beauty and significance of these modernist churches. His photographs, currently on display at TU Wien (Vienna University of Technology), serve as a reminder of the power and potential of these architectural marvels to inspire, connect, and transport us to new realms.

For more information about “Sacred Modernity: The Holy Embrace of Modernist Architecture,” visit the Hatje Cantz Website or attend the exhibition, “Sacred Modernity — Enlightening Space and Matter,” on view at TVFA-Hall, TU Wien, until April 2024.