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

CNNGrowing up in the UK, photographer Jamie McGregor Smith was familiar with traditional churches and their historic architecture. But in 2018, when McGregor Smith and his family moved to Vienna, Austria, he noticed cathedrals and churches across Europe built in a 20th century brutalist style.

Intrigued, McGregor Smith planned a series of train journeys across Europe to find out more about these modernist places of worship. Over four years, McGregor Smith photographed close to 200 churches across eight countries, all designed and constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. “Even though (the churches) are now 50 years old, they still have this feeling of transporting you to some timeless space in the future,” McGregor Smith said in an interview with CNN.

The result of this photographic pilgrimage is a new book, “Sacred Modernity: The Holy Embrace of Modernist Architecture,” featuring 139 photographs from these awe-inspiring buildings — feats of sculpture, engineering and architecture as much as structures created for a spiritual purpose.

These include the concrete triangular motifs of the Templo Mariano di Monte Grisa, Trieste, Italy, completed in 1965; the cavernous, minimalist interiors of Christi Auferstehung Kirche in Cologne, Germany, completed in 1970, and aerial views of the concertina-like structure of Mehrzweckhalle der Schulschwestern in Graz, Austria, completed in 1979.

“Churches always try to create this alternate reality, so when you step in, you appreciate the power beyond the everyday experience,” said McGregor Smith, whose photographs from the project are also currently being exhibited at TU Wien (Vienna University of Technology). “You are almost stepping into a psychedelic reality.”

The traditional institution of the church may not seem like the most natural partner for modernist architecture, yet the impact and legacy of World War II provides important social and historical context for their emergence. At the Second Vatican Council, bishops from across the Catholic world met in Vatican City between 1962 and 1965, and discussed ways in which the church could move forward to adapt to an increasingly changing world. One of the topics was the architectural design of the church.

“Both Catholic and evangelical churches wanted to look forward to a brighter, more optimistic future,” said McGregor Smith. “After the trauma of the war, there were many young priests wanting to work with the best and brightest modernist architects.”

The results of these collaborations bear some commonalities, as McGregor Smith highlights in the text accompanying his photographs. Many of the churches photographed are constructed from, or heavily feature concrete — both a cheap material, and one architects were using to experiment with and test out pioneering new designs.

“(The architects) are using the expressiveness of concrete where you can create forms and shapes that have never been possible before. You can pull and push space in and out of a frame and create a reality that’s never been possible in normal architecture or normal design,” said McGregor Smith.

“That’s what I love about a lot of these buildings; how difficult and how unreal they seem. This, I think, is to push people into forgetting the normal day-to-day, and for them to appreciate a reality beyond what their senses can normally deliver.”

McGregor Smith referred to apophatic architecture; the idea that human language and concepts can’t fully capture the greatness of God, and so it was the task of the architect to use visual language and design to describe the indescribable. The use of negative space, playfulness with light and dark, and sense of omniscience then played important roles in the design of these churches.

And McGregor Smith as the photographer too faced a similar challenge in capturing these spaces on camera. “Everyone in a way is trying to express the inexpressible, or trying to somehow capture a glimpse of something beautiful and powerful that normal words can’t.”

As he was photographing the churches that form the “Sacred Modernity” project, McGregor Smith recalled how they were often quiet, without large crowds or congregations that they would have once held.

“I liked photographing the empty stillness of these places. For me, it’s a shame that these wonderful, architectural icons are really underappreciated and uninhabited,” said McGregor Smith, adding that he would often attend the end of mass, with no-one else present.

“This design period was a way of bringing people back to the church and reforming its image. Now we are in a position where these churches are mostly empty.”

In an increasingly secularized Europe then, the churches of “Sacred Modernity” reflect the institution’s past, present and future all at once. For McGregor Smith, these spaces present possibilities to engage societies in different ways — with religion, with design, and with each other.

But, much like the very emergence of post-war modernist churches, this requires adaptation. “Religion is, by design, fashion conscious. The church always has to stay current, otherwise the parishioners will walk away without them.”

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