Thursday, December 16, 2010

Another Armadillo: Renzo Piano's Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church

The gold standard of bad church architecture, Our Lady of the Angels, is often called "The Yellow Armadillo" by its critics due to some of the more peculiar design aspects of its exterior. Yet one of the positive reviews of Renzo Piano's low-slung Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church in the saint's hometown of San Giovanni Rotondo described the building as looking a bit like a "slightly squashed armadillo shell."

I recently examined this building, and much of the critical praise that has attended its design and construction, in the latest edition of Sacred Architecture Journal; for those of you who do not receive the print version of this great magazine, the editors have kindly made the article online available here.Since writing, by the way, a few things appear to have been added to the building, such as a presence lamp (of a distinctly underwhealming, catalog-bought appearance) and the configuration of the tabernacle has been altered slightly, so a few of the details described in the article don't quite match up to the photographs; the main thrust of my critique remains valid, however. A taste:

The building reflects the low, scrubby, rolling terrain all around it, but it does not appear to be nestled in the landscape so much as lie flaccidly upon it. Rather than primitively edenic, the effect is ramshackle and faintly industrial. The shrine’s most obvious feature is its broad, nearly flat roof, an irregular and jagged armor of immense pre-patinated copper plates. Beneath the low, bowed roofline, the structure seems not so much built as assembled, a sagging bricolage of precariously-balanced stone, wood, glass, metal, and stucco. The self-conscious geometric twists feel, at some level, far more ostentatious and alien than the triumphalist ornaments Piano took great pains to avoid. Indeed, lacking the sense of scale brought by ornament and detail, the long, low structure has a lumpen, looming quality.
Unlike some of the churches of the sixties and seventies, the biggest problem here is not a studied Brutalist ugliness or shag-carpet pseudo-catacomb homeliness, given the expense that was sunk into this structure, but that contemporary design is brought to a stuttering, incoherent silence in the presence of God. It simply does not have knowledge of the language to convey such depths of meaning in a way that reaches beyond the pantheistically numinous to the truly revelatory.

And also, if you can't build a cruciform-plan church for a stigmatist, who can you build one for?

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