Renowned Architect Discusses How to Reclaim Key Elements of Church Design

Duncan Stroik, Professor of Sacred Architecture at Notre Dame, spoke on the foundational characteristics of Church architecture at a lecture jointly sponsored by Notre Dame’s Tocqueville Program and the California-based Napa Institute. The September 1 talk, entitled “Principles of Sacred Architecture,” rearticulated necessary principles of the field that have largely been lost over recent centuries.

Stroik began with a quote by the 19th-century French diplomat and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, for whom the program is named, on Sacred Architecture: “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”

Stroik is the founding editor of the Sacred Architecture Journal and the award-winning architect of numerous churches, including Thomas Aquinas College’s Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel. He said that “we’ve been coming out of the darkness in art and architecture in the last thirty years,” due to the visionary work of priests, bishops, lay people, and architects.

During most of the Church’s two-thousand-year history, principles of sacred architecture were largely assumed and understood, but now they must be made evident once again. While there are important things like liturgy, mystery, and light that we associate with sacred architecture, these are less quantifiable, explained Stroik, and so he focused on five quantitative principles that are necessary for success in sacred architecture.  

The first principle is “verticality,” which Stroik described as being used to “foster a sense of awe” and as a “major vehicle for creating a place of transcendence.” In recent decades, architects have focused on the “immanent rather than the transcendent,” and unfortunately our budgets have reinforced this, Stroik jokingly remarked. Churches should instead foster a sense of uplift, by being at least as tall as they are wide, he argued.

The second principle is “directionality,” which implies journey and pilgrimage, as we are all on a journey to the Holy Land like the Israelites. This is accomplished through clearly articulating the journey with distinct episodes, from the door, to the narthex, to the knave, to the transept, to the sanctuary, he maintained. These things, he noted, “point you in a direction: towards the altar.”

Stroik then focused on two important elements of the “geometric order” of a Church as his third principle. Geometric order reflects the “rational order of God’s creation,” he explained. It creates a “whole body,” Stroik continued, which is “just like the body of Christ.” Geometry in a Church is employed axially along a straight line and can also be seen in the façade of the Church.

The fourth principle is the “tectonics,” which proceeds from construction, or the “poetics of structure,” Stroik said. Tectonics, which encompass the material and structure of the building, express the logic of construction and the idea of bringing the weight of the building “all the way down to the ground,” he elaborated. This is expressed in features like buttresses, columns, and pilasters.

The fifth and most important principle is “iconography,” or “imaging the invisible reality,” according to Stroik. He focused on the importance of images of holy men and women for us to show devotion to. These images express the fact of the Incarnation, in which God became man and dwelt among us.

Professor Stroik concluded his talk with the fact that a good Church needs all of these principles, but a great Church needs them all to be done excellently.

Tim Busch, Chairman of the Board and Co-Founder of the Napa Institute, which was formed at the call of Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia for a strengthening of Catholics in America in the face of an increasingly secular culture, also was asked to comment. He explained that Napa had previously partnered with the Tocqueville program for a religious freedom symposium, and now as a part of the Napa Institute Experience they came to participate in the game and “to tour the Basilica and to have this lecture with Duncan Stroik, one of the greatest architects in the world.”

Saturday witnessed not only a defining victory over Michigan, but also a great partnership between two bastions of Catholic culture and thought.

Noelle Johnson is a junior studying theology and physics, and a student fellow at the Tocqueville Program. She loves coffee and movie musicals from the 1940s. You can contact her at