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Andrzej Białkiewicz

Cracow, Politechnika Krakowska


Analysis of tasks of designing contemporary sacred architecture in view of the author’s own designing experience in the field encourages an attempt at a synthetic presentation of a number of problems. After 1970, obtaining planning permission for sacred objects was much easier than it had been before in Poland, e.g. in cases when the building area did not exceed 250 m². Such a church was then called a “chapel”. Another range covered buildings with an area not exceeding 600 m². Designers often tried to circumvent those regulation by designing two-storey churches with the lower storey partly sunken into the ground. It seems that the legal regulations relating to the designed church area to some extent influenced also their form.

Despite its large diversity of form, the church architecture of that time did not entirely free itself from the traditional patterns. The process of church construction involved an investor, a contractor and a designer. In many cases the construction was carried out according to a do-it-yourself method, and the architect was often surprised by changes made without his consent. The actual building created under such circumstances often significantly deviated from the design as he was excluded from the very process of construction. However, it should be emphasized that these problems occurred only in the implementation of some of the sacred buildings. However, many outstanding examples of religious architecture have also been built in Poland.

Since 1989, a planning permission to build a church has not required special procedures to bypass the building code, and the designer now has a much greater influence on the ultimate outcome of his work. Therefore the majority of the problems discussed herein, characteristic of church architecture of the nineteen seventies and eighties, have already passed.

keywords: architecture, church, design, sacred architecture of the 1970s and 80s in Poland


Tasks of designing contemporary sacred architecture are usually complex in nature. Their analysis, in view of the author’s own designing experience in the field, encourages an attempt at a synthetic presentation of a number of problems and a formation of some conclusions. The author wishes to present the specificity of the issues based on over forty projects of which he was either author or co-author. Similar problems seem to have been quite widespread as regards the implementation of other sacred architecture objects.

From 1970 onwards, obtaining planning permission for sacred objects was much easier than it had been before in Poland. Applications for such permissions to build churches always reflected real needs. As Sławomir Siwek wrote in 1986: The goal of church building has for decades been to make up for the most striking disproportions and thus to improve the situation of the faithful who had to travel a long way to the church. To meet the needs expressed by the believers, diocesan curiae developed organizational criteria to be used on applying for planning permission. As a rough ‘minimum’ criterion, it was assumed that a church should serve 10–15 thousand believers.[1]

Prior to the design phase, the programme of the object was developed. It was then that the needs of the parish were carefully analyzed. At this stage, the future investment was also affected by some formal and administrative restrictions such as location, church size, building area. At the turn of the 1980s it was easier to get planning permission for a church which did not exceed 250 m² and for which no presbytery-house was planned. Such a sacred object was granted planning permission as a so called ‘chapel’. Any priest who commissioned such an object had to travel tens of kilometres from the existing presbytery-house to perform a liturgy there. Another group was constituted by religious buildings with an area of 250-600 m². According to Janusz A. Włodarczyk, there was  …an administrative spatial requirement for the usable space in a church not to exceed 600 m². It was easier to obtain planning permission if the limit was observed. That is why most churches built in the 1970s and 1980s were similar in size, although larger objects also occurred.[2] More often than not the investor agreed with the designer to try and circumvent the regulations. However, from a time perspective, it becomes obvious that the programme developed at the time was too spacious both with regard to the variety of functions and the area designed for them. This was due to the fact that when there was an opportunity to build a church, the idea was to make it as big as possible. The result was two-storey churches with the lower storey partly sunken into the ground. This is where classrooms, chapels and all kinds of so called utility rooms were situated. It turned out later that most of the rooms were never used and had been designed mostly to circumvent the regulations and maximize the usable space without increasing the built-up area. Apparently, the legal regulations concerning the size of the churches affected their form to a certain extent.


Another important problem was making the administrative authorities agree to the proposed location of the church. Detailed studies were conducted into the contemporary urban layout of a town or district and particular attention was paid to the type of buildings in the area, transport infrastructure and parking capacity both existing and planned. The spatial layout of the town was also characterized, taking into consideration landmarks and perspective axes. The location of the new church was vital since it was to blend in with the surroundings. All the elements were considered in the context of the future development of the location. In many cases, however, the studies were overlooked and the location of the future church accepted by the authorities was to be far from the centre and had very inconvenient transport links with other built-up areas. The plots were often not sufficiently large to build a parking area or to be utilised by the church in order to fulfil indispensable liturgical functions, not to mention the possibility of building a presbytery-house in the future. Despite these drawbacks, the church location soon became the hub of a newly emerging built-up area.

Contemporary sacred architecture is characterized by a search for new forms. They reflect current trends in architecture, new building technologies and theological changes following Vaticanum II. There is a noticeable variety of forms. The Vatican Council’s constitution says: The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. The art of our own days, coming from every race and region, shall also be given free scope in the Church.[3] Despite this fact, modern sacred architecture does not seem to have freed itself from traditional patterns of style and form. It is thought that a characteristic feature of the architecture of new Catholic churches is the preservation of ideological and formal continuity (…) beside orthodox duality and universal meaning.[4] Sometimes the form of the designed church was influenced by the investor-priest supported by the Parish Council. There were usually two different approaches to the form of the church. One of them required an expressive gable roof with projecting eaves, while the other wanted the roof to be inconspicuous and the form to be sculptural. Andrzej K. Olszewski lists the types of modern churches in Poland referring to some of them as tent-like and sculptural.[5] I met an architect who was a member of an architectural and building committee for a curia, who actually demanded that the designed churches have big gable roofs with projecting eaves.

The building process involved the investor, contractor and designer. In many cases, a do-it-yourself method was adopted and the architect was surprised by the changes that were made without his consent. The investor collaborated closely with the contractor he had chosen and accepted the changes made by the latter, resulting mainly from the lack of qualifications, the desire to simplify the building process or lack of creative call. The contractor’s pseudo-economic suggestions at particular stages of the construction process were also readily accepted. The designer was not consulted on or even informed about these innovations which usually proved to be mistaken. Unfortunately, it was impossible to return to the original design, for various reasons, and the nonsensical alterations had to be accepted, which affected the final form of the object. There were also cases, fortunately very rare, where the investor-priest introduced some changes to express his artistic creativity. On top of this, there were shortages of building materials and those available did not have the appropriate parameters. Andrzej K. Olszewski confirms this when he writes: Finally, the last type which is also hard to classify. It includes the objects that were built without planning permission or on inappropriate lots and the result was a forced marriage of the old and new churches to get a larger square footage and function.[6] He adds, referring to one church: There were some controversies because of a shortage of bricks. The priest, without consulting the architect, decided to lower the building by 1.5 m, which was a significant change, considering the scale of the object. He also ordered an opening to be bricked up and another one to be made in a completely different place. Since nothing can be done about it, we might as well put up with it.[7]

Sometimes the architect’s job ended when the church was in an incomplete state. In some cases, the investor did not embark upon collaboration with the architect after obtaining planning permission. When the church was in an incomplete state, many artists offered the investor their decorative services and ideas. In many cases the true value of such offers was dubious at best, and they cluttered the interior. Poland, however, is not the only country where such things occurred. Jerzy Szeptycki confirms this fact when talking about the decoration of sacred interiors: The architect responsible for the design of the church finishes work when the form is ready (…) Decoration workshops are organized strictly on business principles. They offer standard or customized furnishings (…). The general feature of these popular (and expensive) types of church interior decorations is their eclecticism and total independence of the character of the church itself.[8] The elements of interior decoration are removable, so it is to be hoped that those church interiors which have not been designed properly will be arranged appropriately in the future. Sacred architecture implemented under such circumstances is sometimes different from the architect’s design and can generally be equated to nothing more than a building. Therefore it is hard to consider it in terms of art. Julia Sowińska shares this opinion when she writes: These totally non-architectural factors had an effect on the final result, unfortunately, it was mostly unfavourable.[9] According to Andrzej K. Olszewski: Modern sacred architecture is viewed with a kind of snobbery, a despotic-excitable negation: oh, what a monstrosity! We don’t have anything at all! How horrible! etc. … Only a fraction of objects have had sufficient artistic value to be included in the history of art. I have seen a set of pictures from a diocese and I am aware of the fact that most of the objects that have been built there are good examples of objective difficulties, sociology of architecture, but there isn’t much to do there for art historians.[10] Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that all the greater or lesser objective problems occurred in a minority of sacred architecture objects and, in fact, many outstanding objects of sacred architecture have been built in Poland.

Since 1989, obtaining planning permission for a church with the accompanying facilities has not necessitated a circumvention of the building code. The availability of building materials and professional building contractors has made collaboration between the investor, architect and contractor possible, and the architect has a much greater influence on the final appearance of his work. Fortunately, most of the problems of the 1970s and 1980s mentioned in the paper seem to have passed.


[1] S. Siwek, ”Budownictwo sakralne – ciąg dalszy”, Tygodnik Powszechny (1986), no.2, p.3.

[2] J. A. Włodarczyk, ”Dwa kościoły rzymsko-katolicki i ewangelicko-augsburski”, in Budownictwo sakralne ’98. Konferencja naukowo-techniczna. Budownictwo miast i wsi. Białystok 78 maja 1998, Białystok, 1998, p.366, after: J. Sowińska, Forma i sacrum. Współczesne kościoły Górnego Śląska, Warszawa, 2006, pp.117–118.

[3] ”Konstytucja o Liturgii”, no.123, in Sobór Watykański II, Poznań, 1968, p.68, after: M. E. Rosier-Siedlecka, Posoborowa architektura sakralna. Aktualne problemy projektowania architektury kościelnej, Lublin, 1979, p.149.

[4] J. Rabiej, Tradycja i nowoczesność w architekturze kościołów katolickich. Świątynia fenomenem kulturowym, Gliwice, 2004, p.129.

[5] A. K. Olszewski, ”Próba typologii współczesnych kościołów w Polsce. Komunikat oraz kilka uwag ogólniejszej natury”, in Sacrum i sztuka, Kraków, 1989, pp.85–105.

[6] Ibid., p.101.

[7] Ibid.

[8] J. G. Szeptycki, A Study of Problems and Factors of Contemporary Ecclesiastical Architecture, a thesis presented to the Faculty of the School of Architecture, The University of Southern California, June 1952, after: A. K. Olszewski, I. Grzesiuk-Olszewska, J. Szeptycki i jego kościoły w Ameryce, Warszawa, 2000, p.15.

[9] Sowińska, p.118.

[10]Olszewski, p.103.

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