Territories of faith: church and the post-war city

Territories of faith: church and the post-war city

Territories of War

FRH Member KADOC, the Interfaculty Documentation and Research Centre on Religion, Culture and Society at KU Leuven, Belgium, recently published in the KADOC Studies on Religion, Culture and Society series a new volume entitled: Territories of Faith. Religion, Urban Planning and Demographic Change in Post-War Europe. This article is a review written by Marcus van der Meulen, member of the FRH Communications Committee.

The urban areas of Europe are typically marked by their religious buildings. It is too often overlooked how many of the amount of churches in these urban areas were built after the Second World War. Some of these post-war buildings replaced destroyed predecessors, however, a considerable amount were new constructions. And this should be understood in the broadest understanding possible of the word. Efforts were being made to shape a new type of church in these post-war decades, a type of building and of purpose more fitting the challenges of modern society.

Modernization and urbanization accelerated after the Second World War. Indeed, western Europe underwent a profound transformation and this included its religious landscape. It is during the post-war period the place of religion shifted from a central to a peripheral place in people’s lives. Many church authorities began to realize that they had neglected the outcomes of modernization and urbanization that had started much earlier. The urban parish church underwent a major alteration, from a traditional place of worship to a parish centre. New insights from sociology were applied in the planning of this new type of parish church. Perhaps it is more accurate to describe it as a neighbourhood centre for various social and cultural, as well as religious activities. Faith, in this book, should be understood as not only religion but also hope. New parishes and their buildings were erected in a hope that these could be used as places of missionary in the urban territories. 

Initially the building of new churches appears to be in a modernist spirit of confidence, an attitude that progressively became more modest. Planning the new church became increasingly pragmatic. Indeed, pragmatism was a key word in the construction of new parish churches, including the appropriate appearance and location of the building in new urban districts. Although Church and State were legally separated, religious and municipal authorities worked together on various levels, as various essays in this book illustrate. The rapid modernization and urbanization of society came with a secularisation, a process that proved to be irreversible despite the hope the new churches could bring change. And it is often precisely these parish churches, which were founded as new spiritual centres in the post-war city, that are now becoming redundant. The relatively short lifespan was already taken into account during the planning of some of these new churches. Today, the post-war churches are an important part of our cultural heritage, not so much as expressions of the piety of the period but as a tangible part of the post-war religious heritage in Europe. A heritage that is in danger of being forgotten.

This book explores the processes behind the construction of new churches in urban areas in post-war Europe. These processes are grouped into three sections; Negotiations, Expertise and Authority. The first section, Negotiations, consists of four essays. In “Planning for Faith in Wythenshawe, Manchester”, Angela Connelly explores the planning of churches in a new town in post-war Britain. The ultimate place of the church in new estates was in a sense a pragmatic negotiation between various authorities and the construction site. Judi Loach and Mélanie Meynier-Philip discuss in “Lyons’s Post-War Churches. Two Contexts, Two Churches, One Architect: Pierre Genton’’ the role of the Diocesan Office for New Parishes in the planning of new churches in the suburbs of Lyons. They argue that the diocese of Lyons was in the vanguard of liturgical reforms and that the religious buildings by Pierre Genton express these radical new forms in both liturgy and architecture. In their conclusion Loach and Meynier-Philip attempt to capture the importance of these buildings, and make suggestions how best to preserve them. In “Constructing Country, Community and City. Alvar Aalto’s Lakeuden Risti (1951-1966)” the planning of one of the best known modernist churches in Europe is analysed. Sofia Anja Singler argues this church illustrates ambitions of modernisation and demonstrates the complexities of post-war religious architecture. In the final essay in the first section Marina Wesner focusses on religion and church building in post-war Berlin. “Faith in a Divided City. Church Building in Berlin and the 1957 Interbau Exhibition” illustrates the different attitudes towards religion in the East and the West at the time. Two churches, one Lutheran and one Roman Catholic built in west Berlin’s Hansaviertel are discussed in more detail.

The second section, Expertise, begins with an essay by Eva Weyns and Sven Sterken. “Rethinking the Urban Parish, François Houtart, the Centre de Recherches Socio-Religieuses and the 1958 Pastoral Plan for Brussels” analyses how the traditional parish was reinvented in the post-war period, under the influence of, among others, sociology, a modern science at the time. The planning of new parish churches in the suburbs of Brussels is explored in more detail. The suburban churches that were eventually built are the result of pragmatism, a word that regularly returns to Weyns and Sterken, the result of a negotiated solution between the formulated new ideas and the reality of construction in the post-war city.

Joao Alves da Cunha and Joao Luís Marques explore the planning of new parishes in the Portuguese capital. In “Catholic Parishes in the Lisbon Master Plan of 1959. The Legacy of the SNIP and the MRAR” two interesting case studies are presented, which are explored as the result of a long and complex process, focusing on the place of the parish church in a fast-growing and modernizing capital. The next essay by Jesús García Herrero focusses on similar issues in the Spanish capital. “A Silent Revolution. Jacinto Rodríguez Oduna, Luis Cubillo de Arteaga and the 1965 Plan Pastoral for Madrid”, illustrates how the new insights of sociology of religion at the time were used to address the challenges of new parish churches in the rapidly expanding and modernizing city. Comparable to what happened in other major urban areas, the church building became a parish centre revolution not only in the number of new buildings, but also in its form. 

The third and final section of the book deals with Authority. Umberto Bordoni, Maria Antonietta Crippa, Davide Fusari, and Ferdinando Zanzottera examine the activities of various ecclesiastical bodies in the Archdiocese of Milan in the decades after the war. “A Laboratory of Pastoral Modernity. Church Building in Milan under Cardinal Montini and Enrico Mattei from 1955 to 1963 ” argues that the many new parish churches constructed during the post-war decades were demonstrating a self-confident spirit of modernity.  “Reconstructing the Diocese of Barcelona. Parish Reform and Church Building under Monsignor Modrego Casaus from 1943 to 1967” brings the reader back to the Iberian peninsula. Alba Arboix-Alió and Sven Sterken write in their introduction that over a third of all churches in Barcelona were built in the twentieth century. They argue this is not as much a reflection of piety of people at the time but rather the result of an interaction between politics, religion and urban planning. In Barcelona the driving force behind the construction of new parish churches is Archbishop Modrego. Arboix-Alió and Sterken argue there was a shift from the self-confident to the off-centred, even modest, church building during the post-war period. The section about authority and the planning of new parish churches is concluded by a contribution by Ellen Rowley who analyses the planning of a modernist parish church in a Dublin suburb. “Mass Housing and the Catholic Hierarchy in Dublin, 1930s – 1970s. The Case of Ballymun Estate”. Although it is a case study on the western periphery of Europe, the essay reads like a summary of the development of the parish church in the twentieth century: from a confident building at the heart of society and the neighbourhood, to a modest and inconspicuous building in the suburbs, as were the new churches in Barcelona. Ballymum, Rowley argues, was exceptional for the Irish Republic, yet in a wider European context it is almost the standard for the post-war modernist parish church. A reflection about the current changes of the church in a post-parochial era, written by Kees Doevendans, concludes the book. 

Territories of Faith is an important contribution to the understanding of church building, especially roman catholic, in post-war western Europe. It examines the processes that underpinned post-war church building, which so manifestly deviated from tradition. This book certainly contributes to a better appreciation of these usually atypical buildings. The focus of this book is primarily on roman catholic churches, which makes the essays more mutually comparable. 

The religious buildings are testimonies of this extraordinary period in the history of Christianity in Europe. Understanding the significance of it is the first step in preserving this heritage. The book maps out why the buildings are deliberately atypical for a church. This was not only a liturgical renewal, but an attempt to give a different interpretation to the place of the church in modern, urban society. The territory of faith was shifting, a place that increasingly moved to the periphery.

Territories of Faith, Religion, Urban Planning and Demographic Change in Post-War Europe can be ordered at Leuven University Press: https://lup.be/products/178863 

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