AWN Pugin at 200: Gothic Revival in the 21st Century (Part 2)

The Gothic for Contemporary Worship

In this long overdue second part of a series on the influence of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin at the 200th anniversary of his birth, we examine the potential applicability of the Gothic Revival to 21st century worship practices and culture. Part of the delay comes from a period of deeply reading Pugin's True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture and, to a lesser extent, Contrasts. I have also been working on a presentation for this year's Texas Society of Architects (AIA) Convention on this same subject.

In order to address the topic of the Gothic Revival and contemporary worship, we will first look briefly at the basis for Pugin's arguments, focusing primarily on why they do not constitute an absolute and universal prescription. We will then question the relationship between formal building expression and formal worship expression by outlining the realms through which such a relationship might be required or justified. Finally, we will look at three examples of contemporary worship occurring in Gothic Revival buildings that relate to different realms in that outline.

_DSC9060 by Mars Hill Church, on Flickr

Such a discussion very quickly moves into the territory addressed by the majority of recent books on church architecture: "in what style shall/should we build?" By appealing to style we have already reduced the question below the level of Pugin's textual output. But that is the dominant nature of our current discourse in the church and, moreover, is how Pugin has been interpreted from day one (not that he was helped by his unpopular ecclesial affiliation or his less than endearing presentation). Not only did Pugin react to the very origins of this "question of styles," he questioned the question itself. Despite the fact that his answer comes packaged with a particular style, the context and inquiry through which his answer is made makes his thoughts incredibly important to our present when styles have moved from opposing fashions to opposing factions.

Know that I am not writing with a preconceived determination on any style as preferable or appropriate to constitute an absolute model for a church building either universally or categorically. In fact, any hint of such a determination raises a massive red flag and brings increased scrutiny on an entire thesis. I therefore came to Pugin with some skepticism, since like most people, I knew little more than the graphic elements of Contrasts. True Principles turned out to be a refreshing surprise.

Propriety in Pugin's Polemic, Briefly

I intend to address (and further question) the polemical character of Pugin's writings in a subsequent part of this series. But because of the difficulty in separating style and partisanship in church architecture, something of a teaser is required. So briefly, here are two notes on the unexpected nature of Pugin's polemic that distinguish it from our contemporary versions (which are based largely on superficial appeals to reductive theology post-rationalized to justify personal preference).

1. Pugin bases his appeal to English Pointed architecture on practical concerns. Its desirability is based as much on climate, geography, structure, and techtonics as on the historical, religious, and societal importance. The bulk of True Principles, beginning from page 2, deals with material categories of ornament as they relate to construction. The propriety of ornament comes later, and with that comes the relevance of the religious use.

One of four reasons given for the impropriety of Greek temple forms used for churches is that "northern climate requires steep pitched roofs, which destroy the proportions of a portico" (True Principles, 47). Another is that in their daily use, churches require elevated bells and there is no archetype in classical architecture for such a form.

Elsewhere, in discussing domestic architecture, he argues, "in the first place, what does an Italian house do in England? Is there any similarity between our climate and that of Italy? Not the least. Now I will maintain and prove that climate has always had a large share in the formation of domestic architecture" (True Principles, 55). And the opposite holds true as well: it would not do to build a Gothic church in Italy.

He even concedes that a humanist university should be built in a neopagan manner, since that is proper to what is taught within. He simply regrets that such an institution exists to be built in any manner. Which brings us to point two.

2. Pugin is not primarily concerned with the architectural style of churches. This is what is most commonly misunderstood, though Pugin's actual program may seem even more difficult. The principles of Pointed architecture resulted, and could again result, from the application of proper building principles within the environment of a society based on Catholic principles. The application of Gothic expression to any old building will not suffice. This is not Abbot Suger's Gothic born of the spiritual qualities of material and light. The church is simply and necessarily the highest and best building, the culmination of Pugin's model of a holistic built environment.

Pugin's objection to the choice of a style other than Gothic was first a problem that a conscious choice was being made at all. He saw himself surrounded by a degenerate society that made it possible to build in degenerate styles (including the Gothic when misapplied as a style). This means that the propriety of Pointed architecture is not a property inherent in the style, nor is it a matter of liturgical theology or experiential preference. This is why he can say he is arguing for "not a style, but a principle."

We cannot conclude Pugin was devoid of any polemic. It is just not a polemic in support of an architectural style. Nor is it an absolute universal model.

Developments after Pugin

Needless to say, history has not played out in the manner Pugin would have chosen. The church continued to branch and divide, moving in increasingly complex growths away from the medieval ideals he sought. Industrialization gathered steam and architectural discourse moved away from the application of historical styles toward the development of individual ones. The place of the church in society grew increasingly isolated. The vision of a coordinated built environment springing in the medieval manner from Catholic principles is now entirely untenable.

We can conclude that there is little relevance left to Pugin's complete vision of the Gothic Revival if we are fighting to maintain the ability to act according to our religious principles, let alone establish something like a Christiandom-modeled social order. And yet the Gothic Revival persisted in its own right, sometimes reduced to applied ornament, sometimes adapting to new principles. The powerful image of the Gothic church remains very much embedded in the cultural visual lexicon as definitively "church."

But is there anyone working today who can deliver it? I have seen it suggested that the increase in instances of historically-minded new churches proves that they are not cost-prohibitive. Which is true, except that they also prove that the problem is more about building them well than building them at all. Expertise and craft are greater barriers than cost. Pugin wrote that a church in its essence is a stone building. At some point we must realize that stone veneer is just not the same.

So within the church, the Gothic retains a viable presence. But when and for whom?

Architectural Expression and Worship Expression

Is there a necessary connection between any particular instance of architectural style (or tradition or language) and any particular instance of liturgy? Is there for each liturgical practice, worship type, or ecclesial tradition a proper and correct building type, style, or tradition? Or are they entirely interchangeable, the result of individual taste and preference, and a tool for shaping the experience in the manner of a stage set?

I use "expression" as a term which includes–but is not limited to–style because style is overly reductive in addition to being taboo in most architectural circles. "Expression" encompasses the physical, sensory, and experiential realities of worship/buildings in a particular time and place. It also acknowledges this expression as a creative human endeavor and therefore assumes that any one manifestation is flawed as it expresses only a portion of the ideal of worship or building. Such an attitude might contribute to lessening the partisanship of the so-called worship wars and facilitate this type of survey.

As a framework to guide future work in this area, I propose there are five realms within which the investigation of correlating architectural expression and worship expression should occur. Any argument for or against the propriety of a style to a church must address at least these five areas, with relative emphasis on the more relevant in each case.

The first four come from my tentative definition for a church as an entity (that is, not a building). A church is a church because it shares amongst its members a common liturgy, theology, ecclesiology, and history. This is true for everything from a local church (where the members are individuals or families) to a rite or denomination (where the members are parishes or local churches) to an inter-denominational union or communion (where the members are denominations or rites). The degree to which each is shared generally decreases as the scale of the entity increases, allowing for diversity in unity.

The first four realms are then liturgical, theological, ecclesial and historical. The fifth is more immediate and subjective: the phenomenological impact of the style on the worship (and perhaps, to a lesser degree, vice versa).

1. Liturgical correlations deal with functional requirements of the worship form itself and its associated precedents. This may take the form of acoustic requirements or the need for a linear arrangement for processions.

2. Theological relationships reference particular dominant themes, beliefs, or images with architectural implications. The apse as an image of heaven or Suger's descriptions of colored light are examples of theological correlations.

3. Ecclesial correlations could relate to specific instances of architectural forms associated with the development of ecclesial traditions or to the impact of church governance structures on church building structures. An example of the former is the austerity of Cistercian monasteries; an example of the latter is the cathedra and presbytery in an episcopal church compared to the pulpit-focal auditorium of a pastor-led church.

4. Historical relationships refer to cultural traditions or to coincident developments between worship and buildings. The synergistic origins of quincunx plan with its iconostasis and the Byzantine Rite give a perfect example of this type of relationship.

5. Phenomenological correlations come from the perception of the participants. These are highly variable on an individual level, but may also map to culturally shared perceptions of the meanings of actions and forms.

Any argument for or against a particular building tradition will attempt to appeal to these concerns. The weakest, but first and most pervasive, arguments address only the phenomenological in that they are based on individual reactions to worshiping (or imagining worshiping) in buildings of that style. Slightly more developed positions (found in books such as Ugly as Sin or No Place for God) tend to post-rationalize this with an appeal to theology.

Within each realm, the nature and degree of correlation must be addressed. It is common for an appeal within any of the realms to have a strong traditional basis. For example, that a style was once (or even better, first) associated with a denomination or liturgy means it can/should be employed is the most direct and convincing use of such an argument. Therein is the impetus behind the liturgical movement's intense, if inconclusive, interest in the practices of the early church.

An important example of degree of correlation in the ecclesial realm relates to church documents and teaching. A denomination may have prescriptions related to its buildings, and while these seem to rarely breach the topic of style directly (i.e., "The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own" SC 123), they may indirectly apply to its application. The question becomes how binding such documents and their subsequent interpretations are to be considered.

For comparison, there is a direct correlation between a particular rite and the chant which accompanies it. Within the Roman Catholic church, for example, each of the sui iuris churches has a unique chant form for its own rite. Most of these share a name with the rite just as they share a common origin. They grew up alongside the rite itself and are intrinsically tied to it, though disuse now tends to obscure that connection. Here there are clear and strong liturgical, theological, and historical connections. Similar connections exist for some of the Eastern autocephalous churches, but are rare in Western churches.

With architecture, the different externalities placed upon the program make it difficult to have correlations as clear as those seen in music. The relative permanence and expense of a building means you cannot try a new one as you can with a new song or mass setting. And its prerequisite sheltering function raises Pugin's more practical concerns. Regional variances in climate, economics, and material make a local building tradition far less portable than a local vocal tradition. Variances in historical periods create similar limitations, though neither type of limitation prevents the attempt to port styles.

Instances of 21st Century Worship in Gothic Revival Buildings

Part of the original inspiration for these Pugin posts came from Fr Richard Vosko's prompt on the Faith & Form linkedin discussion. This post addresses his second question:

What could be said about architectural style and it[s] appropriateness for 21st century worship patterns?

To conclude, we will look at three examples of why a pairing of a current worship type with the Gothic Revival–whether in full principles or reduced to a style–might be desirable.

The reasons given are not necessarily the reasons the churches shown below worship in the buildings; they are external observations based on the realms of correlation between worship expression and building expression. A post-occupancy study of self-consciously contemporary worshipping churches occupying Gothic churches would be very worthwhile, especially to see if those who ended up there by circumstances would now choose to build themselves a similar building. But that is not the intent of this article.

When considering what constitutes a "21st century worship pattern," there are two answers. I take it to mean any actively practiced expression of worship. However, there is a more specific meaning which is an expression developed in the 21st century. The latter meaning is what we would think of as "contemporary" worship as opposed to "traditional" worship. It is potentially more interesting in this context because of the greater apparent historical distance between the two expressions.

The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter

The first example of a 21st century worship expression is actually a very old tradition. But ecclesiological events of the 21st century have given it something of a new life. It also reflects the surge of interest in things traditional which follow periods of rapid technological development and accompany economic instability, as we have now. (There will be more on the nostalgic and vintage aesthetic impulses in current culture in the last example.)

The 2009 apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus of Pope Benedict XVI established a mechanism for Anglo-Catholic and Anglican Use communities to enter into corporate full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. On 01 January 2012, the Vatican established the The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter as the body for this move in the United States and Canada.

Setting aside–though not to diminish–the significant ecclesial and political aspects of these developments, the liturgical consequences promise to develop the vitality and complexity of the worship of the church as a whole. As a result, parts of the Roman Catholic church are rediscovering the liturgical heritage of English Catholicism with its particular characteristics: longstanding vernacular English, Sarum Rite and its chant, rood beams and separate chancels, etc.

These are very recent developments, so the full impact has yet to be seen. But looking at the buildings of the ordinariate's member communities suggests a high interest in Gothic architecture. Most are currently using existing parish churches, either sharing a building with existing diocesan parishes or occupying closed parishes, and they seem to have each sought out the Gothic revival (or otherwise traditional) architecture. Roods abound.

Mount Calvary, Baltimore was an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal congregation from its foundation in 1842. One piece of building-related legal/political fallout in this case is the question of property ownership. Fortunately, the parties reached a solution through mediation through which the property is now a shared resource between ministries of the Episcopal diocese and the ordinariate.

There are also at least two recent purpose-built churches amongst the body. We discussed the weakly superficial, if somewhat liturgically principled, architecture of Our Lady of Atonement, San Antonio part one of this series. The principal church of the ordinariate also has a recent building, Our Lady of Walsingham, Houston.

walsingham_ext_2 by Cram & Ferguson, on Flickr

The design, by HDB/Cram & Ferguson, is far more substantial, especially in the proportion and materials of the interior. There are more direct references here to Norman churches than the vague Gothicky details found in a replica.

Interior by Cram & Ferguson, on Flickr

Liturgical, ecclesial and theological correlations justify the use of Gothic Revival for churches of the Personal Ordinariate because of its history. Its liturgical practices and theology, while based on older English traditions, flow directly from the revival of these traditions by Victorian groups such as the Ecclesiological Society and Tractarians. It follows by historical connection that the Gothic Revival also championed by these groups would accompany that heritage, as in Our Lady of Atonement, San Antonio. Or, as in the case of Our Lady of Walsingham, Houston, to look to the same medieval models that inspired Pugin's ideal English church.

The quality of how that heritage is maintained must be addressed. So too, as Pugin would point out, the appropriateness of such buildings in Texas. These may be externalities in considering the applicability of building expression to worship expression, but not in the propriety of architecture.

St James the Less, Westminster

This congregation describes itself as a Charismatic, Evangelical, Anglican church. When describing worship, these terms generally connote the amplified pop/rock instrumentation evident below. But it is housed in one of the finest examples of the English Gothic Revival churches in the generation following Pugin, designed by George Edmund Street. Based on commonly held assumptions, the picture below will incite some cognitive dissonance.

St James the Less, Westminster by _jjph, on Flickr

It will also incite some indignation from those who think, on one hand, that this is a defilement of a proper church building and, on the other hand, from those who regret the excessively elaborate trappings of antiquated oppression on true, vibrant praise and worship. Both views are regrettable errors. The presence of an active congregation is what sustains and preserves the church building and its continuity. And the continuity and complexity imparted by the apparent contradiction to the worship and life of the church is inestimably beautiful.

According to the history on the church website, "when the church was consecrated [in 1861], SJTL favoured the Anglo-Catholic, high-church style of worship and praise. It had developed into a ‘broad’ church by 1960, shortly before proposals were made for its closure due to a decline in attendance." Efforts by the Gothic architecture-apologist poet Sir John Betjeman and other prevented the destruction of the church. The current congregation moved into the abandoned church in the 1990s.

Is this the church the congregation would have built tabula rasa? Either way, they are certainly proud of it. And they did not substantially modify the building. Most notably, the high altar and elaborate chancel remain. This in no doubt a result of the historical status of the building, but it is a difference between even broad Anglican churches and other more informal Protestant churches.

St James the Less, Westminster by _jjph, on Flickr !! It's like the band was never there...

The confluence of an increase in urban parish closures with a trend of some non-denominational-type churches planting inward from the suburbs makes ripe the potential for this condition. For example, the Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky appears to be wrapping up a renovation project of the former St Vincent church this year.

Here there is no historical correlation between the worship and building expressions. But there is a significant ecclesial one. The ability of the Church of England to maintain its via media is its particular charism, a worthy example for the church at large. And to have two evidently divergent ends of its spectrum in one place is an incredible testament to the Anglican identity. There is no immediately obvious liturgical correlation, though it would be interesting to see how their Communion services utilize the chancel. Moreover, while the presence of a correlation serves to justify a use, a lack of correlation does not necessarily disqualify provided that more functional requirements of the liturgy are met. Unexpected opportunities surely rise along with the difficulties.

The phenomenological realm plays a role here as well. There may be value in what appears to be a contradiction. Other than the ecclesial expression mentioned previously, the experience of contemporary worship in an old church must imbue a sense of significance and aesthetic richness lacking in more utilitarian churches. It moves the worship experience further away from the stage show, which is easier to associate with secular experiences. The sense of sanctity imparted by the architecture, mediated by participation in a familiar cultural idiom in worship, may in fact be more suited to a significant portion of the church-going population than the churches in the previous example. At the very least, it is a combination of which the church would do well to have more examples.

Mars Hill, Portland or, The Dream of the 1890s is Alive in Portland

Our final example moves even more firmly into the contemporary worship, perhaps even to the cutting edge. Mars Hill is a non-denominational protestant church made up of small local churches, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. As far as their worship goes, they describe it best:

There are earplugs in the back should you need them. Mars Hill music is loud, mostly rock and roll, and always about Jesus. God has blessed Mars Hill with talented musicians who love Jesus and serve his church through original music and fresh takes on old hymns. But more than just entertainment, our music is part of the way in which we prepare our hearts and minds to hear the word and to respond to that word. Also, as part of our worship, we take communion together and give offerings to support God’s work at Mars Hill. All in all, the atmosphere is casual, reflective, and open to all.

When I visited a Mars Hill Church in Ballard (Seattle) years ago, they held services in a post-industrial warehouse space with an interior painted entirely black. All of the interior architecture consisted of a technical theater aesthetic.

IMG_5177 by Mars Hill Church, on Flickr

But the Portland local branch of this hip church recently moved into a new old building.

IMG_2056 by Mars Hill Church, on Flickr

The times they have changed. The shift from that space to this one reflects directly a shift in the culture of the Mars Hill constituents (that is, the younger hipper subset of young professionals) from the 2002-era Seattle start-up crowd to the 2012-era Portlandia hipster types.

Construction on what is now Mars Hill, Portland began in 1906. Architect Willard Franklin Tobey (1883-1972) designed the building for Sunnyside Congregational church (later renamed Staub Memorial Congregational church after its founding pastor) in a new suburb founded in the 1890s with the ideals of the late 19th century.


The design is a textbook example of the Auditorium-type churches popular with the affluent urban congregations of mainstream Protestant denominations–including Congregationalists–throughout in the 19th century. The textbook in this case would be From Meetinghouse to Megachurch, a great reference for more information on this particularly thread of history.

The interiors of these churches featured radial seating and galleries around prominent thrust stage sanctuaries. The building forms deferred to this importance placed on this interior arrangement. So while Gothic revival details were commonly used on the exterior, these tended toward the detached and decorative. (Pugin would not have been pleased in the least.) In fact, the exteriors of these churches were effectively interchangeable; arguably the miniature Pantheon that is First Baptist Church, Baltimore (1818) more appropriately embodies the interior arrangement.


The building sustained mergers and dissolutions of a few churches. It was later listed for sale in 2002 for around $750,000. The owners prior to Mars Hill were a single family living in the basement.

DSC_0072 by Mars Hill Church | Portland, on Flickr

Is this Gothic Revival architecture? Certainly not by Pugin's standards. But it definitely represents a substantial branch of its American development. According to the trajectory traced in From Meetinghouse to Megachurch, by occupying this church building the Mars Hill community is climbing back up its own family tree. So there is something of a historical correlation, if not to Gothic, at least to this manifestation of it as a style. Certainly the auditorium arrangement is suited acoustically and visually for the Mars Hill liturgy. But again, these are not related to its elements of Gothic style.

IMG_2058 by Mars Hill Church, on Flickr

Here it is almost exclusively an appeal to aesthetic experience that gives the use of Gothic style its resonance with contemporary worship.

(Now might be a good time to watch this if you are not familiar with the show Portlandia.)

Portland being Portland, the worship at this location has a bit more of a chamber-pop vibe, and the vintage / hand-crafted nature of their 2012 Easter decorations and letterpress-inspired poster bulletin (all of which are very well done) completes the package.

IMG_2063 by Mars Hill Church, on Flickr

It is with these that the wood-paneled details, old benches, and stained glass start to make sense. But why would this be desirable? It might be dismissed as fashion, but I think there is something deeper underneath. Just as the existing building is a mediated form of Gothic church-building, an extra degree of mediation comes from some combination a vintage aesthetic, a renewed interest in handcrafts, and perhaps even a little ironic appreciation of churchy kitsch.

IMG_2059 by Mars Hill Church, on Flickr

Associations, personal preferences, and past experiences all contribute to the phenomenological component of worship expressions. And these could support the use of Gothic architecture on an individual or communal basis. The trouble with phenomenological correlations is that they are by definition highly subjective and could just as easily provide evidence against use of a particular expression. Culturally shared experiences generally give more reliable but less potent correlations.

The Gothic church has a special place in the collective cultural memory, even when it is not someone's personal preference for their own church. For a majority of westerners, a Gothic church will be half of what comes to mind when asked to envision a church. The other half would be the classic steeple over a Palladian temple front. These are very much literary mental images; they are tied what a church looks like and has been, not what a church should be.

The important consideration in light of this shared mental image is the emotional associations with that image. This will determine whether its use would be desirable. Now that we have recalled these two shared mental images, the neoclassical steeple and the Gothic Revival tower, it is easy to distinguish between their distinct poetic flavors. And there are variations within Gothic as well: it can be the ominous dark of the Romantic Gothic novel, the rustic simplicity and craftwork of the medieval English Gothic, the ornate elegance of the French Gothic, or the later sentimental industrial-produced kitsch. Victorian Gothic Revival combined the first two while Pugin the middle two. Any of these poetic images could give traction for the use of Gothic with contemporary worship.

In the case of Mars Hill, Portland, I suspect it is a combination of the vintage warmth and an ironic appreciation of Gothic kitsch which relate to their worship. The appeal to the vintage is a form of nostalgia, and that particular affliction of longing for an idealized place from which you don't actually come. The wood details and warm stained glass fit with the interest in musical and artistic craft evinced in the mandolin/violin instrumentation, the graphics of their printed elements, and use of reclaimed wood in the new purpose-built coffee bar.

There is definitely a degree of kitsch in the sentimental scene-based version of stained glass. And I can't help but think that some of the stereotypically hipster irony–that self-referential and self-effacing interest, simultaneously silly and sincere–plays its part. Part of the value of kitsch is that it is familiar and comforting, qualities we need from a church in moderation but may not want to admit we need. And perhaps it is a defense mechanism against the challenge of being Christian in the trendier parts of Portland.

In Conclusion

So there is much in Gothic architecture to relate a wide variety of contemporary worship patterns. The possible relationships operate in all of the realms of church identity and experience, though none of them are necessarily binding. And no matter the form of the correlations, it will be driven by an attitude towards the past, whether that be a continuation of tradition, conscious historicism, or a form of nostalgia.

The example of St James the Less, Westminster suggests that the artificial separation of traditional and contemporary forms is unnecessary. Furthermore, it proves that acting against such divisiveness with high-quality contradicting terms produces strikingly beautiful results. And the example of Mars Hill, Portland demonstrates that the modern assumption of progress set opposed to tradition has lost its self-evident status for the younger generations. They embrace what was previously held as contradiction and celebrate the aesthetic potential of the results.