I thought this would be a brief lunch-break read, a gentle skim through some nice illustrations and something to explain squinches. How wrong I was. This deceptively small, cunningly designed handbook has taken me two weeks of bedtime reading to get through, but my word it was worth it.
The book – by the American architectural historian Denis R McNamara – has seventeen sections. Each section has very detailed double-page spreads on many aspects of those sections (six pages on baptisteries and fonts, twelve on windows). Then there are the drawings. Good lord, the DRAWINGS. I do love architectural drawing: I couldn’t draw to save my life but I’m related to architects and artists so I can appreciate. The drawings are the most time-consuming thing in this neat little book, because their precision requires very close attention, and their detail is so satisfying. As an example, in the Introduction to Floorplans, there are five different floorplans on the first two pages (old and new, cruciform, west-facing, French rationality, pilgrimage) and they require close attention, to map the texts to their illustrative function, to spot the detail under description. Six pages follow, and that’s about an evening’s reading, mugging up on the difference between dome-on-cube, Greek cross and fan-shaped floorplans, and what this means for the liturgy and performance factors.
With all the line art, the paragraphs of text have to be severely on-topic, and the author’s restraint is admirable. The paragraphs are really just captions, but packed with the information you need. nothing flowery, no nonsense about subjectivity, just the facts, ma’am. And as we progress through this really quite demanding crash course, as the subtitle says, we make splendid discoveries. I can now bore fellow church-spotters with sage remarks about the purpose of a flying buttress (to take the weight of the walls that enlarged windows can no longer support). I know the difference between a spire and a steeple. I know about colonnettes and clerestories, packsaddle roofs and turrets. I was continually startled at the sheer quantity of symbolism packed into church architecture, even in very modern churches: not just liturgical, but archaaeological, architectural and denominational too. I know what a squinch is, and what it does.
The title of my copy seems to have been changed from its earlier Herbert Press edition; perhaps the Ivy Press thought that ‘Christian’ on the cover would attract more church-goers than the dryer-sounding ‘ecclesiastical’, though the title page still has ‘ecclesiastical’. I would have liked to have read more on the architecture of bell-towers and the vast swinging weight they have to accommodate. Meeting-houses, too, are barely mentioned, and then mostly from the North American tradition: there is nothing said about Quaker architecture, which also has its symbolism to unpack. However, despite minor grumbles, this is a marvellous book; an absorbing stocking-filler and a fine source of interesting facts for vestry conversations.
Denis R McNamara, How To Read Churches. A crash course in Christian architecture (Ivy Press, 2011), ISBN 978 1 4081 2836 7, £9.99.