Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain
Architectural History vol:56 pages:387-425
The historiography of the renewal of church architecture in Belgium during the twentieth century most often focuses on architects as the initiators of typological innovation. However, even the brightest architectural ideas don't materialize without enlightened patrons. This paper therefore discusses the role of the ecclesiastical authorities in the renewal of church architecture in the post-war era in Flanders, Belgium. Traditionally a Catholic stronghold, in the 1950s and 1960s, the predominance of the Church became challenged by the new spatial and social realities of the upcoming Welfare State. The increasingly suburban character of the built environment undermined the physical proximity and visual dominance of the parish church, while its social basis severely declined due to rapid secularization. As a response, in 1953, Cardinal Joseph-Ernest Van Roey launched the Diocesan Work for Church Building Domus Dei. It intended to stimulate the construction of church buildings in the Archbishopric Mechelen-Brussels by providing financial assistance to parishes in need of new infrastructure. This paper looks into the origins, goals and methods of this organization in an attempt to assess its impact on the renewal of Catholic space in Flanders. It is argued that while in the 1950s Domus Dei epitomized the conservative and defensive attitude of the higher clergy, in the aftermath of Vatican II, it became a remarkably progressive agent in the renewal of church architecture. More specifically, it advocated a new interpretation of the parish church as a community centre, transcending its purely religious character.