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Inculturation in Church design

Liturgical renewal has shaped structural trends in ecclesial architecture

  • Stephen Kim Jung-shin, Seoul
  • Korea
  • August 21, 2012
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The Second Vatican Council’s liturgical renewal and the Church’s adaptation to modern society have caused groundbreaking changes in ecclesial architecture since the 1960s.

The style shift in parts of Europe in the early 20th century has become more common throughout the world, suggesting the influence of inculturation.

Before the Council, Catholic participation in liturgy was passive because the liturgy was clergy-oriented. The Eucharist was focused on dedication, rather than unity through sharing, which led to a hierarchical and rectangular church building.

After the council, however, the priest faced the faithful and Mass was celebrated in a local language, which led to active participation in liturgy. As a result, Church architects began to incorporate circles, ovals, fan shapes and trapezoids in their designs.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Europe experienced something of a renaissance in design, with Germany, Austria and Switzerland leading a building boom to reconstruct houses of worship damaged or destroyed during World War II.

In South Korea, German Benedictine Father Alwin Schmid introduced modern Church architecture in the 1960s-70s, in which the Council’s spirit of liturgical renewal was well-reflected.

Some Korean architects also pursued the new concept and shape of church buildings. But their attempts remained superficial and focused only on techniques or styles. Therefore, those church buildings did not attract good responses from priests and parishioners.

The Naedang Church in Daegu archdiocese, completed in 1966 by architect Ottokar Uhl, is a good example of how the lessons of Vatican II were adapted to architecture.

The altar sits in the center of the square-shaped structure, while the tabernacle and baptismal font are placed well apart.

However, the Church was later remodeled two decades later because parishioners preferred not to be seated amphitheater-style around the altar, where they found that facing each other proved distracting. The altar-centered arrangement also did not fit local Catholics’ conservative and unilateral way of celebrating liturgy.

The reality of the local Church has made inculturation of architecture conceptual rather than practical. It was thought to mean traditional tiled roofs, windows and patterns.

More recently, discussions have been held on registering traditional Korean Hanok-style Church buildings as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Hanok churches were strongholds of faith during the early years of the Catholic Church in Korea, and they demonstrate that Western Church culture was not unilaterally implanted but rather embraced spontaneously by early local Catholics.

Furthermore, the Hanok churches are believed to have contributed to the cultural exchange between East and West and to hold a clue to the inculturation of Church architecture.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council, we should be mindful of the original meaning behind the structure of a Church.

A Church is the house of God, where the congregation celebrates the liturgy and experiences the unity of God and humanity.

We should pursue an inculturated modern Church that possesses the culture and identity of our times, breaking from the imitation of Western sensibilities and embracing traditional Korean styles.

Stephen Kim Jung-shin is professor of architecture at Dankook University

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