A Sermon in Stone

Church Design After Vatican II

One afternoon last summer, Lawrence Hoy and Robert Rambusch toured New York City’s Church of the Holy Family, nodding appreciatively at each other’s observations as they walked. The fifty-eight-year-old Hoy, a well-known liturgical designer and president of Renovata Studios, hadn’t seen Rambusch, his ninety-year-old mentor, in some time. The two friends were relishing this chance to revisit the interior they had created together back in 1998, including a tabernacle enclosure modeled after the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Dedicated in 1965 and located near the United Nations—it is commonly called “the UN parish”—Holy Family was designed by architect George J. Sole to express the open spirit of the post–Vatican II reformed liturgy, with its increased emphasis on the participation of the laity, Scripture, and the use of vernacular language. As Hoy and Rambusch toured the church, an older woman who had stopped in to pray watched the pair closely, seeming to recognize them as persons of influence. Eventually she approached and offered a suggestion. Wouldn’t it be lovely, she asked with a faint Russian accent, if the towering statue of the open-armed Risen Christ had some company? There was, after all, ample free and unadorned space. How about adding the twelve apostles, six on each side?

“That’s a brilliant idea,” replied Hoy, and advised her to take it up with the pastor.

Safely out of earshot, Rambusch, a revered but controversial giant in the field of liturgical design, flatly declared the idea “stupid.” As for Hoy, whether he actually liked the idea was beside the point. People offer unsolicited advice all the time, he likes to point out, and as a designer you have to deflect what’s inappropriate to the renovation or building process without closing yourself off to public sentiment.

People care passionately about their places of worship, and while that puts a liturgical designer like Lawrence Hoy in the line of fire, it’s also precisely what drew him to the profession in the first place. Hoy knows that liturgical design is entirely different from the design of a bank, a store, or an office building. You are striving to evoke the eternal as well as a connection to a specific religious tradition. That’s a tall order, especially given the acrimonious debate that has swirled for decades around the liturgical design changes inspired by Vatican II, and around architectural modernism as a whole.

Renovata Studios, the Port Chester, New York, firm Hoy co-owns with Peter Scurlock, has navigated this challenge with aplomb. In 1996 Renovata won a competition to provide the altar for the Central Park Mass conducted by Pope John Paul II, and in 2008 Hoy designed the papal chair used by Benedict XVI at Ground Zero, Yankee Stadium, and St. Joseph’s Seminary. Other noteworthy projects include the adaptation of the Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium at Flushing Meadows for the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Jubilee 2000 Millennium Mass, and the historic restoration of sanctuary murals and stenciled walls at New York’s Church of the Ascension in 2008. Recently, Renovata built a labyrinth to be engraved with poems from local poets inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. The labyrinth is open to the public all day. “It really transforms the space into something that’s so much more than a ‘Sunday only’ worship space,” says Hoy. (See the slideshow at the bottom of this page for more of Hoy's work.)

The Vatican calendar on the wall in the entry hall at Renovata’s headquarters in Port Chester is for 2010—its cover features the papal chair the company made for Benedict. Elsewhere on the wall are letters of praise from several cardinals, including John O’Connor and Edward Egan. Clients say what distinguishes Hoy is his firm grounding in both historic preservation and artistic transformation. At times these twin imperatives make him feel like a tightrope walker. But for more than thirty years his goal has remained steady: to respect the best of the old—whether the ornate grandeur of centuries long past or the spare modernism of last century—while embracing the best of the new.

Most of Hoy’s work is for Catholic churches, but, he says, “most churches don’t call you for design.” Instead they take what he calls a “turnkey” approach. “They see something wrong, like old wiring, paint peeling, etc., and want it fixed.” A major renovation Hoy recently completed for St. Luke’s Church in Queens, New York, began with such practicalities. Paint was peeling, stained glass needed repair, and the baptismal font leaked. But Monsignor John Tosi saw in the needed repairs the chance to do more—what he calls “an opportunity to enhance the liturgical space.”

Prior to coming to St. Luke’s, Tosi was director of liturgy for the Diocese of Brooklyn, and during that time he got to know Lawrence Hoy and admire his work. “Larry is creative, yet he has an appreciation for what’s already there,” says Tosi. “He can honor history while bringing it up-to-date with the times.” St. Luke’s presented such a challenge. The church is really two churches in one: an 1898 brick English Gothic structure—Tosi calls it “Country Gothic”—and a mid-twentieth-century addition that houses the sanctuary. Stylistically, the two parts had never meshed. Hoy set out to correct that, in part by copying Gothic moldings in the old section onto tracery for the Blessed Sacrament chapel in the new.

But stylistic dissonance wasn’t the biggest problem. Tosi says parishioners were never comfortable with the removal of the tabernacle to a side area during a 1980 renovation, a change proposed by Vatican II. That renovation also brought the sanctuary forward, a move Tosi says proved “very effective, because it gathered people around the altar.” In the process, however, a vast space was created that in Hoy’s view cried out for containment. He solved multiple problems at once by restoring the tabernacle to the apse and building a wood canopy frame, reflecting the ceiling beams in the original part of the building, to create “a little church within a church.” It blends in so well, says Tosi, “there’s a sense that it was always there.” (See photo on page 15.)

Hoy notes that the canopy is reminiscent of columns and archways in a courtyard of the Alhambra, the famed -nineteenth-century Islamic palace in Granada, Spain. Taking inspiration from disparate cultural traditions is one of his hallmarks. (He modeled the angular chair for John Paul II after an African Zulu chieftain’s seat.) Without championing any one style over another, Hoy draws on eclectic sources for his design and seamlessly incorporates them. Respecting the bones of a building is his prime concern. “Every now and then people will try to squeeze one architectural style into a building that doesn’t want it or need it,” he says. For instance, if a church community wanted to put a Gothic interior into a Romanesque building, he says, “I would try to dissuade them.”

COLOR IS ANOTHER HOY hallmark. “People are often very timid about color,” he says; his mentor, Robert Rambusch, was “fearless” with color, “and I’m following his lead.” Tosi worried a bit about how parishioners would react to Hoy’s liberal use of dark blues, oxblood reds, and deep greens. He didn’t need to. “The colors are so powerful,” Tosi says, “yet they make you feel peaceful. It all harmonizes into tranquil space.” For the St. Luke’s ceiling, Hoy chose his go-to blue: Benjamin Moore’s 804, a.k.a. Chicago Blues. He likens it to the blue of painter’s tape, and admits that some are aghast when they first see a swatch. But it’s been a big hit wherever he’s used it, including his restoration of the interior and rectory at the Church of St. Monica in Manhattan.

Color is hardly the most controversial element in liturgical design. Everyone agrees that a church space should be both conducive to prayer, which connects us to God, and beautiful, to honor God. But what constitutes those two qualities is a perennial source of debate among liturgical architects and designers, bishops and pastors, and people in the pews. Ideological lines have formed around certain design values. Vatican II’s impetus for freer movement and better sightlines, intended to foster inclusion, spawned a profusion of fan-shaped, theater-in-the-round-style churches. Designers like Rambusch welcomed the liberation from what he calls “bowling alley” design. But others feel the new style jeopardized the architectural detail, specificity of sacred spaces, and ecclesiastical order that a church should embody. Prominent among these critics is Duncan G. Stroik, professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, founding editor of Sacred Architecture Journal and author of The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal. Stroik does not dismiss Vatican II’s emphasis on simplicity and clarity. “They’re fine values,” he says. “But I think we lost a lot. I think sometimes the simple became simplistic.”

In Stroik’s view, too many modernist, Vatican II–inspired churches could almost double, in their bland functionality, as high-school gymnasiums. (Of course, many postwar suburban Catholics will remember when Mass was often held in school gymnasiums!) But his chief complaint concerns the absence of human figures. “For certain reform Christian religions or even Judaism, that could be totally fine, but for Catholicism, it’s all about the body.” The Incarnation, he insists, makes it “fundamental” for Catholics “to have figures in our buildings that are God and the saints.” Had he been present with Hoy and Rambusch at New York’s Holy Family Church, Stroik surely would have empathized with the Russian woman’s pitch for plaster apostles.

Hoy has no aversion to gospel figures—his renovation of St. Joseph’s Chapel in Manhattan’s Battery Park, which was damaged in the attack on the World Trade Center, includes statues of St. Florian, patron of firefighters; St. Michael the Archangel, patron of police officers; and St. Joseph, patron of workers (see page 3), as well as a welded stainless steel torso of Jesus meant to reflect the steel façade of the towers. Yet in his view, statuary is too often introduced as décor while having “nothing to do with what is happening” in the particular church. Despite Hoy’s insistence that he is an “open book” when it comes to competing styles, it isn’t hard to see his fundamental preference. Asked to name what he considers the world’s most beautiful sacred edifice, he chooses without hesitation the Monastery of Novy Dvur, in the Czech Republic. Designed by the minimalist British architect John Pawson, Novy Dvur grew out of a reconstructed farmhouse and is most striking for its clean, Bauhaus-like lines and the gorgeous simplicity of how light streams into its vast, mostly unadorned interiors.

Not everyone finds this kind of rigorous minimalism an ideal model for sacred spaces. Novy Dvur is fine for Trappist monks, says Stroik, because “it goes with their charism of rugged simplicity. But what might be appropriate for those living in silence and community and praying seven times a day is different for a parish where people come once a week, if they even come that much, and are out in the world.” Stroik claims that most modernist architects “would rather keep all the art out” because it competes with the architecture. Hoy disagrees—though he acknowledges that the call to liberate churches of excess ornamentation wound up robbing some of their distinctive character, and says it pains him that some design firms have basements filled with works of art heedlessly stripped from churches in the rush to embrace simplicity. (See “Holy Surplus,” page 18.)

BORN IN OHIO TO Catholic parents, Hoy was baptized but not raised in the faith. His parents wanted to expose their children to various faiths, and so the Catholic Church “was just one of the churches that I visited growing up.” Yet Catholicism always held “a fascination” for Hoy and was present one way or another in his life. His father, an editor at McGraw-Hill, worked with the Archdiocese of New York (including then-monsignor Terence J. Cooke) editing the Catholic Encyclopedia. When Hoy was seven, the family moved to the wealthy suburb of Darien, Connecticut, where they regularly attended Quaker meetings. Hoy himself never joined the Friends. But their minimalist aesthetic—a certain austerity, purity, and the impulse to seek spiritual essence by stripping away distraction and ornamentation—appears to have had a lasting effect on him.

After high school Hoy set out to study business in college. But he was discovering that whatever he did in the future, he wanted it to be hands-on. “I had always helped my father work on the house, and I knew how to build things and fix things up,” he recalls. He also knew how to separate treasure from trash, a skill honed as a child when he would visit the town dump searching for useful items for his father’s do-it-yourself projects. Eventually, drawing on these skills, he found work renovating abandoned mansions in city slums. Hooked on the process, he went on to study historic restoration at Pratt Institute in New York. Though he was interested in old buildings generally, churches were a special draw. “I was always intrigued by church buildings because there’s something happening everywhere,” he says. “It’s just an interesting building environment to be in.”

A class at Pratt in which Hoy did light studies of cruciform cathedrals focused him on design and art. He graduated in 1979, and soon landed a job with the Rambusch Decorating Company, renowned for fine Old World craftsmanship and lighting expertise. Founded in 1898 by Danish immigrant Frode Rambusch, the company was led by Frode’s two sons, Harold and Viggo. Harold was nearing ninety and going blind, and Hoy was hired to drive him to jobs. Shortly before he was to begin, Harold Rambusch died. But the company needed someone in the design room, and because Hoy had a knack for building things, he got to stay on. Suddenly he found himself in the equivalent of a new school, with a new teacher: Harold’s son Robert, the top liturgical designer in the firm.

“It was an amazing atmosphere,” Hoy recalls. “Bob was designing all these cathedrals, bringing ideas from all over the country, inspiring people”—and, in the process, breaking from the family firm’s Old World aesthetic. A decorated WWII combat veteran, Rambusch knew Europe well and was eager to embrace the kind of minimalism—and cleansing aesthetic—popular among progressive architects and designers there. Hoy saw Pratt, Robert Rambusch, and “the whole Vatican II group,” including Rambusch’s friend Frank Kacmarcik (who later became a Benedictine oblate) as part of an artistic liberation. The first big project Hoy and Rambusch worked on together was a 1981 remodeling of St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, New York. Built in 1958, the church was “catalog Gothic,” Hoy recalls, “as if Sears and Roebuck tried to copy the Chartres Cathedral.” Rambusch brought a “monastic Vatican II design” to the refurbishing of St. Agnes, recalls Hoy, “eliminating nostalgia and bringing the building to the core of its meaning.” Hoy admired and studied the thoughtfulness Rambusch brought to such projects. “A big part of what Bob did was to rethink the theological reasons behind a lot of what was in church design. He wanted the meaning to be found in the liturgy, not in the décor of the building.”

In 1984, creative and financial disagreements among the Rambusch heirs led to Robert’s departure from the family firm. Hoy left as well, working on various projects in New York and eventually forming a partnership with Peter Scurlock, a craftsman with a master’s degree in sculpture from Pratt. Rambusch, meanwhile, had begun working on his own, and Hoy and Scurlock started doing projects for him and the clients he had brought with him, including a major liturgical renovation of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse, New York.

In 1988 Hoy and Scurlock incorporated as Renovata; the name means “renewed” in Latin. “We aspired to be what Rambusch had been,” says Hoy. “But it was difficult for two art-school graduates who didn’t have any money.” They took whatever work they could find—doing designs for an Armani show, restoring Brooklyn brownstones. But Renovata’s core business would always be liturgical design. Hoy adopted lessons learned from Rambusch. One was the importance of keeping all aspects of a project under one roof. Even today, while Hoy will hire a lighting designer, almost all his interior designs are built in house, and Renovata’s office is jammed with models and artifacts.

“Bob had a funny expression,” Hoy recalls. “He’d say, ‘I’m not a semen donor. I like to raise my own children.’ Creativity doesn’t end on the drafting table, and there’s no way you can just do a design and hand it off to someone else to build—the lowest bidder—and expect to get a work of art.” Renovata takes pride in staying within a budget and working with clients to decide where limited funds are best spent. “One reason we’re not a big famous company,” he says, “is because we don’t go overboard”—unlike big-box design firms, he notes, that churn out imitations of Old World grandeur wrapped in faux stonework. A church, Hoy likes to remind people, is an individual expression of community and faith, not a stage set.

A CAREER IN liturgical design stretching over four decades offers a panoramic view of changes in the field. During the 1980s, recalls Hoy, conferences on design were held around the country and leading figures, including Robert Rambusch, gave lectures. It was an exciting time for church art and architecture. Then a stock market crash, a recession, and the sexual-abuse scandal drained church coffers and left administrators demoralized. Today many dioceses, including New York, have disbanded their Liturgical Commissions, leaving decisions “tied to the whims of individual (and increasingly conservative) bishops.” The Archdiocese of New York has disbanded its building department, hiring private companies instead. Managers “tend to have a construction background,” Hoy says, “so their philosophy is, ‘Get the archdiocese to do the design, get the contractor to build it, and who are these liturgical artist guys? We don’t need them; you can pick your altar out of a catalog.’”

Although Lawrence Hoy and Duncan Stroik may differ on modernism, which Hoy admires, and on today’s conservative revival, which Stroik endorses, they agree that Vatican II inspired a lot of bad design. “Vatican II established principles, not rules, leaving an opening for creativity,” says Hoy. “There was a powerful suggestion to use liturgical design consultants, which didn’t really exist before then. But there wasn’t really any kind of jurisdiction over who was an appropriate design consultant. A lot of architects said, ‘I can do this’—and I’ve spent thirty years fixing their mistakes.”

Despite his preference for strong and simple forms, Hoy says he’s “not on a mission to convert anyone to Vatican II,” and recognizes that in recent years the pendulum has swung back in the opposite direction. “People want all the bells and whistles,” he says. But the same impatience that fueled a rush to implement the reforms of Vatican II is now, in Hoy’s view, fueling a rush to reinstall traditional elements—even if they don’t belong in a particular structure or meet artistic standards. He cites the current profusion of tapestries as an example. “Wherever there’s an empty space on the wall they put up these doilies,” he says, “that look like what you’d put on your grandmother’s couch.”

Stroik offers similar judgments of modernism. In particular he dislikes the way Vatican II architects “went low” on their designs, sacrificing verticality in the name of utility and saving money. Stroik sees height as a kind of theological imperative, and he is glad to see it making a comeback. “Most all the architects of the great modernist buildings—not just churches—were atheists,” he asserts, implying that there’s something antireligious about the minimalist, modernist ethos. A designer shouldn’t be hired or rejected solely on the basis of faith, he concedes. But he views practicing the faith as a big plus. “The church building is a theology in stone and glass, a sermon in stone,” he says. A client should ask: Who is giving this sermon?

Hoy doesn’t see himself as designing a sermon. “I’m a spiritual person, but I wasn’t raised to be religiously going to Mass, and it would be kind of hypocritical to say ‘Well, now that I’m designing churches I should do this.’ I don’t want to start practicing a religion just because that’s how I’m making my money.” For his part, Rambusch—an observant Catholic—holds that talent should trump all. “I’ve done Episcopal churches and Jewish synagogues as well as Catholic churches,” he says, and only once did someone—a rabbi—question his religious credentials. “But a lot of synagogues felt comfortable with Christians who were designers as long as you were a good designer. I would say the Jews more than Christians respected talent.”

What bothers Hoy about the backlash against modernism and Vatican II is the same thing that bothers him about the hasty rush to embrace modernism and Vatican II in the first place. He sees both as closed-minded. The question that matters to him is: Is it art? Both Hoy and Stroik express disdain for “catalogue churches” that lack individual detail. But Hoy has equal disdain for what he calls “Disneyland churches” based on a nostalgic idea of what people left behind in Europe—or saw there on vacation. Too often, he says, people equate nostalgia with authenticity and forget that change has always been challenging. “Gothic cathedrals didn’t appear until the eleventh century, and people thought they were hideous at first. Structural inventions, like flying buttresses, were weird. Only now do we accept them as beautiful.”

But nostalgia is big business. “You can find all kinds of things in a catalogue that are premade in Italy,” Hoy points out. “If you want an altar with the theme of the Last Supper, they’ll ship it over in pieces that are numbered and you can assemble it like a little erector set.” It’s not that he thinks everything should be made by hand. Quite the contrary. Take Sacred Heart Chapel at Fairfield University in Connecticut, for which Hoy and Rambusch were design consultants. The chapel’s walnut pews, striking for their monastic simplicity, were made by machine, yet Hoy is enthusiastic about their design and the beauty of the wood itself. “Authenticity,” he quips, “doesn’t mean doing everything the hard way!”

The backdrop to the altar at Sacred Heart is a stunning thirty-by-forty-foot Crucifixion mosaic made of glazed terra cotta blocks and bits of deep blue and burnished gold glass, all set in supple, undulating fiberglass mesh. It draws on antiquity, Hoy notes, but it was made by a mix of man and machine and assembled in a studio. Stroik, asked to comment about the chapel, allows that its tent-like exterior has “some nice Old Testament symbolism.” But the interior is “very severe,” lacking arches, columns, moldings, or any other of the representational elements he admires. And while he sees “some nice iconography” in the mosaic, he finds it “over the top” alongside the abstract nature of everything else.

LISTENING TO Rambusch, Hoy, and Stroik, one realizes that much of their disagreement is about art, not worship. Yet all three agree that art exerts a powerful influence on worship. (An oft-repeated axiom is that when liturgy competes with the building, the building always wins.) Interestingly, both Rambusch and Stroik seem to consider themselves rebels. “Why are some people still so scared of contemporary?” asks Rambusch. “It’s a hundred years old, for God’s sake!” Stroik, on the other hand, views modernism as “a rejection of historical forms that we would see from antiquity up through the 1920s or ’30s”—a rejection that itself, as he sees it, has become the establishment position against which he and other traditionalists are pushing back. As for Hoy, most of the interior features he has designed over the years, while unmistakably contemporary, show powerful classical influences; he doesn’t see modernism as rejecting those forms, but rather as reinventing and building on them.

Stroik sees a big generational component to the design debate, with youth on his side. Young people, he says, want something new, and to them that means traditional. “Their attitude is that modernism is out of style,” he says. With more than a trace of satisfaction, he reports that the real boom in American Catholic church building today is happening in the South; that’s where the money is, where the babies are—and where the blank walls that Rambusch views as “profound” are considered an anathema. “‘We want a church that looks like a church,’” Stroik quotes southern Catholics. And to them, he notes approvingly, that means “traditional.”

Even if this is true, Hoy counters, it doesn’t mean that contemporary design should be abandoned; he continues to believe that the best way to satisfy clients “is not necessarily by doing what they tell you to do,” but rather by “helping them to find themselves.” A case in point is Renovata’s recent makeover of St. Peter’s Church in Greenville, North Carolina, where Hoy, with the help of the church’s pastor, was able to steer tradition-minded diocesan leaders toward contemporary furnishings more appropriate to their 1980s, Vatican II–style building. “We definitely had to jump through hoops,” Hoy reports. But once he showed leaders that his model of a contemporary altar with a gray granite base and black onyx top had roots in Baroque and Italianate churches, they embraced the contemporary form.

So what might the liturgical-design field look like twenty years from now? Robert Rambusch worries that by then all his “DNA fingerprints” will have been erased—not by the demands of young people, but by conservative bishops and back-to-tradition movements such as the one Stroik leads. He insists that he wouldn’t mind if his work were replaced by new and better ideas—but not, please, by nostalgia. “Nostalgia is dangerous,” he says, “because it’s not facing reality and not adding to creativity.” How, asks Rambusch, “can you have a living faith, unless you have living architecture and living art?”

It’s almost impossible today to discuss anything related to Catholicism—certainly anything controversial—without asking, “What would Pope Francis do?” There’s no telling yet where the new pope stands on liturgical design. Minimalists can take heart from his love of simplicity; but will he support directing funds toward liturgical design? Hoy, having designed elegant chairs for the last two popes, jokes that Francis might be happy just to sit “on an overturned bucket.” Yet he is optimistic about the overall Francis Effect. Frugal as the pope is personally, as a “cultured man,” Hoy predicts, he is likely to approve spending money to beautify churches for the benefit of the faithful. As for what such a church will look like in the future, Hoy says technology is moving too fast to predict where liturgical design will be in two decades. “On a worldwide level,” he says, “creativity is expanding exponentially.”

Returning to the clash between the traditional and the modern, Hoy predicts that the challenge will continue to be to “decipher the aims of the two and try to get the most out of each, the best of what they both have to offer.” Concerning what Robert Rambusch calls “the glory days” of the post–Vatican II era, Hoy offers a gentle and admiring correction. “Interpreting Vatican II in its purest state was what Bob was about,” he says. “But times have changed. I have no problem working with a congregation that wants something else. I’m not going to try to change them.”

Still, like his mentor, Hoy has no patience for nostalgia. “Architects and artists who break new ground make you understand that the creative process is in our souls, as it was when life was created,” he says. Change is always hard, but the satisfaction of a church job done well, Hoy believes, is like no other. “A lot of people will [practically] lie down before the scaffolding equipment and not let you touch their church because their church is the most beautiful thing ever,” he says. “Then you re-design it and they say they never had any idea it could be so beautiful. And now your design is the one that they’re going to lie down in front of the bulldozers for. That sense of respect for something you’ve done makes you realize, where else could you get that kind of feeling?”

Published in the June 1, 2014 issue: 

Bethe Dufresne, a frequent contributor, is a freelance writer living in Old Mystic, Connecticut.

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