Monday, May 23, 2022

Cathedrals of Mordor and Zen-like Meditation Rooms: Some Churches That Fail as Churches

Saint Ignatius, Tokyo, Japan (Sakakura Associates, 1999)
Last week, we looked at a High Church Anglican theologian's reflections on what makes a church building worthy of being called a church, that is, a spatial representation and habitation of what the church is in its mystical essence (my words, not his).

Since we're on the subject of architecture, which is endlessly fascinating and has not been featured as much as NLM as it used to be, I thought I would take this opportunity to share a remarkable gallery of photos by the French photograph Thibaud Poirier of ultra-modernist churches.

Most of them are impressive for their sheer size, but nearly all of them transmit either a cold, oppressive, sinister feel (as if they were chapels for the religion of Sauron in Mordor) or, on the contrary, a religiously vague, mildly comforting, functionally neutral spaciousness that is artistically far superior to “the Shed” (the name of the space in which the Mars Hill Bible Church meets, which we featured last week) yet lacking for the most part in the qualities that make for a recognizable, inhabitable, incarnational dwelling.

I was particularly struck by how many of these churches were built in the 1950s, well before Vatican II, or at any rate during Vatican II, before the Novus Ordo. It prompted me to wonder if such trends in architecture were a small part of the psychological reason behind simplifying, abbreviating, and modernizing the liturgy, for the simple reason that it's very hard to imagine a solemn Mass in such spaces. It would seem awkward to say the least, and bizarrely out of place. Of course it can be done (and surely was done for a short period of time in these buildings), but I can only think of the tensions involved in, say, a super-minimalist production of Shakespeare on a barren stage with actors all in black, where the Elizabethan language clashes with the plain constumery and the vacuous setting.

Here are a few examples of the sinister ones featured in the gallery, with location, architect, and year of completion: 

Saint Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo, Japan (Kenzo Tange, 1964)

Saint-Rémy de Baccarat, Baccarat, France (Nicolas Kazis, 1957)

Sainte-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus, Metz, France (Roger-Henri Expert, 1959)

Saint Joseph, Le Havre, France (Auguste Perret, 1956)

Notre Dame du Royan, Royan, France (Guillaume Gillet, 1958)

Saint Anselm's Meguro, Tokyo, Japan (Antonin Raymond, 1954)

Again, note the dates of these: 1964, 1957, 1959, 1956, 1958, 1954.

And now for a few examples of the more comforting but deistic-agnostic designs:
Église du Saint Esprit, Viry-Châtillon (Anton Korady, 1964)

Kruiskerk, Amsterdam (Marius Duintjer, 1956)

Notre dame du Chêne, Viroflay, France (Louis, Luc and Thierry Sainsaulieu, 1966)

Obviously these structures, unlike Mars Hill, have a permanence, massiveness, and artfulness (in a certain sense) that marks them as important public buildings with religious overtones, but still they seem to thwart their purpose; indeed, the very modernism draws too much attention to itself, and becomes like a Pharisee standing in front and saying: “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other churches…” Whereas the traditional church design kneels in the back and says: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner like everyone else.”

The photography is brilliant. Some of the churches Poirier photographs are quite inspiring (I have not included here the semi-traditional designs); others, intriguing; still others send chills down the spine. It is clear that no cost was spared in building these edifices, and that they represent something other than mere utility. They are built on a grand scale. Unfortunately, some of them hardly transmit anything of the Christian message and could just as well be United Nations meditation rooms. At their worst, they are cold and terrifying, and would certainly not draw ordinary people in, except those who are curious about feats of modern architecture. One cannot envision Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus there; not even a cozy nook exists to escape into.

Speaking of United Nations, I shared on Facebook not too long ago the following two pictures. The first is of the main hall of the UN; the second is of the Cathedral of Light in Oakland. Family resemblance? What is the message of either building? What is the message of their analogy?

It does no good to pretend that a building is not a silent language and a philosophy embodied.

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