An Interview with Architect Adam Hermanson
Over the past few decades, hundreds of churches have been closed around the country, but architect Adam Hermanson and his partners have found an outlet for their service in the renovation of existing sanctuaries. Could their work be pointing to an important source of renewal in the generation ahead?
Faith & Culture:
What are the theological principles guiding your firm’s work of sacred renovation?
We approach our work as the fulfillment of a vocation to assist the people of God to establish truly noble buildings in which the Lord in His great mercy draws near to us. Our work flows from a desire to participate in the great work of Christ in redeeming all of Creation. Our guiding principle, in simplest terms, is that the structure, materials, artwork, and ornament of our church buildings ought to be commensurate with the depth of meaning and rich symbolic language of the sacred mysteries that we celebrate within them. Our sacred spaces ought to possess a certain transcendence that offers a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy in which we participate in each celebration of Holy Mass.
We often describe our work as focused on traditional Catholic sacred architecture. By tradition we mean not nostalgia, but rather the responsibility to gather up the riches of our Catholic liturgical heritage and apply them as we construct, renovate, expand, and beautify our buildings, such that they truly assist the faithful in handing on the Faith to those who will come after. Traditional sacred spaces are ever looking forward, and yet never disconnected from all that the Church has handed down to us through two Christian millennia. In fact, the structure of the Liturgical celebration moves in a similar manner, by recalling what the Lord has done throughout salvation history, we enter into the eternal celebration of the Christ’s self-offering to the Father in the Spirit, and anticipate, even long, for Christ’s return in glory.
Faith & Culture:
Many Catholic churches built between the 1950s and 1980s are examples of Modernist architecture. What are some of the challenges of working with these buildings?
The challenges of working with Modernist buildings are many. There are mundane concerns, of course, such as poor construction methods, inadequate insulation, asbestos abatement, outdated systems, and the like. The greater challenges, however, lie in overcoming the minimalist ethos, which we see in the machine aesthetic, the kit-of-parts approach to building construction, the loss of handcraft, the impoverishment of artistic expression, the aversion to beauty, and the domestication of the liturgical sensibility.
For the liturgical art and architecture of the Catholic Church, these years (1950-1990) were perhaps a perfect storm: a post-war suburban building boom during a time of widespread cultural denigration of tradition; a push toward stark simplicity in liturgical design under the modernist mantra that form-follows-function; and an overall lack of confidence in the ability of beauty to communicate truth and inspire toward the good.
A significant obstacle to the renewal of Catholic sacred architecture today is that the pool of capable artists and craftsmen is greatly diminished from what it was even two generations ago.
In the early decades of the twentieth century the Church in America commissioned many handsome traditional church buildings that were appointed with high-quality artwork, architectural elements, and furnishings. During the midcentury decades, however, the Church effectively abdicated her role as a patron of the fine arts by embracing a Modernist approach to design that called for less and less incorporation of the symbolic and poetic liturgical vocabulary. Minimalism and functionalism were the watchwords of this era, as visual stand-ins for the hoped-for fruits of the Liturgical Movement: authenticity of experience; accessible liturgy; removal of repetition, ornament, and presumed distractions; and more active participation of the lay faithful.
It should be noted, however, that we can recognize certain redeeming qualities and even real opportunities in buildings from this era. In fact, this is at the heart of much of our work–looking carefully at modern buildings to discover ways that we can renew their support for Catholic liturgical tradition.
For example, many of our buildings built in the 1950s and 1960s are substantial masonry structures with large beams and exposed wood ceilings. These elements can be incorporated into newly renovated spaces if good care is exercised. What is to be avoided is the simplistic introduction of overtly traditional elements into contemporary church buildings in a manner reminiscent of a stage set. We ought not to repeat that kit-of-parts approach. That said, one of the benefits that these buildings do afford is that the incorporation of a few strategic artistic elements can make a tremendous difference. Because of the lack of beautiful elements, the simplest piece can sometimes transform the space and deepen our awareness of the sacred mysteries.
In our Benet Chapel remodel project at the University of Mary, we were tasked with renovating a stark interior that was essentially a white concrete box with chairs gathered around on three sides, an aluminum pyramidal skylight above, and the tabernacle tucked away.
We established a clear orientation for the liturgical axis toward a proper sanctuary with rich, saturated color and carefully-selected artistic elements. The emphasis on artistic excellence and handcraft is visible in the Corpus, the Madonna, and a reproduction of the well-known icon of Rublev’s Trinity which serves as the carved and painted wooden door to the new centrally located tabernacle. These pieces are set against a broad wall of gold venetian plaster, which bears the marks of the hand trowel. Overhead, suspended just below the pyramidal skylight we commissioned a glass artist to fabricate four large leaves of gold and white opalescent glass that are gently curved to modulate the sunlight and obscure the aluminum framing of the skylight above. The effect is a light-filled dome but in a contemporary manner, where before was only harsh glass and aluminum.
Perhaps the most surprising artistic element of the chapel is also the most traditional. New inscriptions were carved into the concrete beams above the pews. The inscriptions are taken from John’s vision of the praise of the heavenly host, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain” (Rev 5:12), in four languages – English to the north, Latin to the west, Greek to the east, and Hebrew directly above the altar. The incorporation of engraved or illuminated scriptural text is a common element throughout sacred architecture, and here again it encourages our recollection of the heavenly realities in which we truly participate.
Faith & Culture:
There are also churches that are either little more than barns, or, worse, designed as though they were places of relaxation or even entertainment, and look like ski lodges or auditoriums. What can be done to renovate these structures so that they become fitting houses of prayer?
The outward function of a church building is to symbolize the Body of Christ, to mark a permanent place where the ecclesia comes together to offer worship to almighty God, and this is a specifically evangelical function. Inwardly our churches should be formative, that is, they should be instruments of mystagogical catechesis, where the People of God, made new in baptism, continue to learn to enter more deeply into the mysteries. Buildings that are overly casual, domestic, or utilitarian fall short of these responsibilities.
Oftentimes a few carefully considered changes can make a significant improvement in the interior design and its appropriateness for worship. Some examples include: establishing a clear liturgical axis for ritual procession–movement toward the altar and a clear orientation toward the liturgical east; installing a new ceiling element or canopy above the altar of sacrifice; a noble stone altar that speaks of the centrality of the Eucharistic sacrifice; a beautiful tabernacle in a prominent setting; a clear threshold between sanctuary and nave; well-considered artwork of excellent quality; improved lighting that allows for highlights as well as depth and shadow; noble flooring materials especially in the central aisle and sanctuary; adjustments to provide best acoustics that support choral singing and the pipe organ as the privileged instrument in liturgical settings; and, lastly, the creation of worthy spaces for the private devotions of the parishioners outside of liturgical celebrations.
When we consider most of the churches built during the 1970s and 1980s, a fundamental decision must be made as to whether it is prudent to invest substantial resources into an awkward building that may be ill-suited to its outward evangelical function and to the celebration of Holy Mass. Not every building can be renovated or transformed, and difficult decisions must be made. This is especially true for buildings with odd or innovative exterior forms – these can be the most challenging to bring back within the recognizable tradition as a church that represents the Church.
One example of a successful effort would be the renovation of the parish church building at Holy Trinity Parish in Westminster, Colorado. Originally constructed in 1965, this building was transformed from a dimly lit, low ceiling, barn-like structure into a handsome church building. Our project involved removal of the west front of the building, and the addition of a new brick and stone bell tower along with a stone triumphal arch and rose window at the front entrance. The verticality was greatly increased inside the church as well by the addition of a raised clerestory level with windows along both sides. The new wooden baldachin hovers above the stone altar and reredos which both rest on a predella of dark red marble. The deep blue and gold on the back wall and the prominent wood-trimmed arch serve to emphasize the sanctuary as the most sacred space within the church.
Faith & Culture:
Are there features of modern church buildings that parishioners have not merely grown accustomed to, but actually love or rely upon? Can some of these be preserved? Ought some of these features to be changed in spite of the parishioners’ feelings?
Indeed, we are often asked to incorporate valued elements of parish history into a new design. Sometimes this is easily done; at other times this is simply not possible, and requires careful pastoral discussion with long-time parishioners about the replacement of poor artistic elements, even when they are well-loved. Let me also mention three common attachments which can run counter to theological principles.
Daylight and Views: Many parishioners have a desire for interior church spaces that have an abundance of natural light or even panoramic windows with exterior views. This can be a misplaced desire, since our buildings and sacred artwork are tasked with depicting the redemption of all Creation, not simply offering us a window that looks back out on Creation as it stands today. When done well artistic elements such as stained glass windows, statuary, and murals orient us toward the sacrifice and toward our heavenly home.
Accessibility that Flattens: We see in modern and contemporary buildings a greater accessibility for those of us that are not entirely able-bodied, which is certainly a very good thing. In the context of sacred architecture, however, this great good can lead to an unfortunate ‘flattening’ of the naturally elevated portions of the church building–from the noble set of steps approaching the front door, to the raised platform of the sanctuary, and the predella steps upon which the altar is set. Accessibility that flattens the church space reduces its symbolic value. It can also interrupt the visual effect when ramps and handrails criss-cross the sanctuary space. Too often in our modern churches we have lost the noble element of the altar rail as a symbolic threshold, and have gained unsightly handrails and a flattened sanctuary.
Gathered Seating and Altar as Table: Over the past several decades we have seen a proliferation of gathered seating and sloped seating arrangements. These configurations were often justified by their ability to maximize visibility of the sanctuary and minimize the distance between the altar and the furthermost pews. Such arrangements are also often accompanied by an emphasis on the altar as a table, and de-emphasis on the altar as sacrificial stone. Too great an importance placed on visibility, proximity, and sloped seating can easily lead to a spectator-like mentality among the faithful, rather than a participatory engagement with the sacrifice of the Mass. And the emphasis of the altar as primarily a symbol of the table around which we gather fails to adequately convey the profound central mystery of the Mass as a sacrificial offering of Christ to the Father. A church building is not a place of comfort, but a place of sacrifice and mission. To enter into the sacred mysteries, we do not require sloped or gathered seating, close proximity to the sanctuary, or even unobstructed sightlines. What we need are effective acoustics, a noble sanctuary, an altar with appropriate gravitas, and most importantly the proper interior disposition.
Faith & Culture:
What challenges are you and your colleagues looking forward to tackling in the years ahead?
We are very excited about several upcoming projects that strive to incorporate a rich liturgical vision. More and more often we are asked to design sacred spaces that allow for celebration of the Roman Rite in both Ordinary and Extraordinary forms. It is a particular blessing to see the liturgical vision of Benedict XVI starting to bear real fruit, especially among a younger generation of lay faithful who are desiring beauty and depth of meaning in the liturgy, in sacred artwork, and in church buildings that support our communal worship and foster private devotion.
We have had preliminary discussions about establishing a sacred arts guild here in Denver. There is a real need, and a gap between those commissioning new work for the Church and the capable artists who can fulfill those commissions. Our goal is to bring together artists and artisans with designers and liturgical experts.
As our firm grows we are looking to establish a structured summer internship experience for architecture students seeking to serve the Church with their gifts. This would involve project site visits, local sketching trips, reading and discussion of the essential Church documents, and opportunities to work directly on parish design projects.
The task before us is filled with challenges. But our hope looks toward the continued renewal of buildings and interior spaces to serve and support the celebration of the sacred mysteries, and to help hand on the Faith to future generations.