Architecture has often been compared to language. Over time, cultures develop architectural expressions that communicate specific ideas to the viewer of a building. When a person first sees a building, he’s likely to say, “That looks like a stadium” or “That must be a church”. Now if the architect was trying to be clever or attempting to reinvent the language the viewer could be wrong. Perhaps the structure that looks like the stadium is really the church and vise-versa.
Such an abrupt shift does no one any favors. While the architect might gain a brief notoriety for the novel concept, the resulting structure will not have any meaning for the passerby (cannot teach or instruct). As in a language, architectural development needs to be organic. It needs to arise from generations of use and application if it is to be useful to society as a visible ediface rather than a merely utilitarian object. With churches this is especially important. When people see a church, they should not just see a building used for religious functions, they should also see a physical manifestatation of the creed of those who built it.
When it comes to building Catholic churches, there are certain universal attributes that determine how successfully it will fulfill its intended function. One excellent resource on the topic is Michael Rose’s Ugly As Sin. The three attributes that his book highlights in the successful churches of the past are permanence, iconography and verticality. These are referred to as the three natural laws of church architecture.
Verticality means the height of the church overpowers the horizontal elements. A church with this quality will elicit the desire to look up and contemplate. Creating an atmosphere of transcendence and inspiring reflection upon heavenly things are the intended effects.
Permanence is the enduring quality of the structure. It should have sufficient mass to convey a sense of immutability. A church is a visible representation of the Faith and as such, it should have a sense of timelessness to it. It is not built for one generation or one age but for all. A church that is built well enough to pass through the centuries relatively unchanged provides a strong symbolism representing the Eternal God and the Church which He promised will last until the end of time.
Iconography is the third natural law. The actual form of the building can be a part of this. The cruciform floorplan and eastern orientation are two examples. The most obvious examples though are in the images and statues which adorn many churches. Whether it is the symbolism of the Trinity through the clover or a dramatic portrayal of an angel driving Adam and Eve from Eden, iconography serves to keep the truths of the Faith before our eyes.