A Flickr group for ugly churches
Nicolai Ouroussoff at NYT:
There’s something both touching and disturbing at the heart of “Claude Parent: Graphic and Built Works,” a marvelous exhibition at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Paris’s architecture museum, and it has to do with what the show tells us about our diminished cultural expectations.
Organized by Frédéric Migayrou and Francis Rambert, the show takes us back to a bolder and more innocent age. In the process, it re-establishes the 87-year-old Mr. Parent as a pivotal force in European architecture after decades of neglect by the design mainstream — a force whose influence can be clearly felt in the works of younger luminaries like Wolf Prix, Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel.
These early experiments crystallize in a series of mostly unbuilt civic projects designed between the mid-1960s and the early ’70s. These monumental buildings at first seem to have been inspired by the postwar Brutalism of architects like Le Corbusier and Peter and Alison Smithson. In fact, they are firmly planted in the technological assurance and psychic anxieties of the cold war period.
The Église Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay, completed in 1966 in the small city of Nevers, can be read as a brash critique of Le Corbusier’s 1954 Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut — one of the great monuments of postwar Modernism. Le Corbusier’s composition of concave and convex forms evokes primitive temples and mosques; Mr. Parent’s building — massive concrete walls with rounded corners and slot windows — is the expression of a culture living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation and still haunted by the devastation of World War II.
Inside, two sloped seating areas converge under the light of a long, narrow window running the length of the roof, creating a space of disquieting solitude. The message is ambiguous. Is it a safe haven from the vulgarities of the new consumer society? Or the final resting place for a fixed moral order that is dying out?
Either way, this zone of intimate, even tender social encounters carefully sheltered from the outside world became a recurring motif in Mr. Parent’s work, and is the aspect of it that can make it so moving despite its aggressive qualities.
An image of this monstrous French church, L’Eglise Ste-Bernadette du Banlay, assaulted me as I read the NYT Arts section today.
I have a perverse fascination with ugly churches. They’re supposed to lift our eyes toward heaven, and to help us connect to God. It is vitally important for churches to be beautiful, no matter what style (and many different styles can be beautiful … though not all styles are). Given the stakes, when churches fail aesthetically, they fail epically. Consider Our Lady of Chernobyl, in suburban New York, or the Florida church complex that looks like an bologna ziggurat sculpted by Oscar Mayer, next to a giant tortilla warmer. This is what happens when people forget what church architecture and design is for, and when insecure clergy and church lay leadership get fugaboo’d and intimidated by architects who want to make a Statement.
If you have any images you’d like me to share with readers in a Gallery of Regrettable Churches, send me the links at roddreher (at) aol.com rdreher (at) templeton.org — for a limited time.
You might want to revisit the post to read the new stuff in the comboxes. I had a good laugh over this comment:
You’re out of your league here, Mr. Dreher. Why is it you did not choose any – ANY – of the godawful 19th and early 20th century Roman churches in the US that are cheap knock-offs of neo-gothic architecture? I suppose that any building that looks like the platonic ideal (i.e. the gothic church of your dreams) is going to fall short. It’s sad that you publish this without any understanding of the principles involved in contemporary liturgical design and architecture. But it’s a lot easier to criticize what you do not understand. I have to say that the St. Mary church in Florida (i.e. your Oscar Mayer comparison – probably because of color scheme) is really stunning. Both the reservation chapel and the gathering space are strikingly beautiful. But what do I know? I’m just a church theologian who works in the field.
Mercy me, what would we do without church theologians to tell us what’s beautiful and what’s not?
I have fairly reactionary taste in architecture, as the preceding passage no doubt suggests, but like many laypeople of the “why are these buildings so ugly?” school, most of my distaste is focused on the brutalism of the post-war period. (Dreher linked to Theodore Dalrymple’s wonderful essay on Le Corbusier, whose title, “The Architect as Totalitarian,” offers the perfect epitaph for that era.) I can admire, if not necessarily love, many examples of modernism and post-modernism — skyscrapers and museums, theaters and libraries and skyscrapers again. But I have never seen a church or cathedral executed successfully in any of the architectural styles that have prevailed since the 1920s and ’30s. From Italy to San Francisco, the showpiece modern churches tend to succeed as monuments but fail as spaces for prayer and worship; their smaller imitators, scattered across the American suburbs, are almost always blights on whatever religious community is unhappy enough to occupy them. In the end, I suspect that something in the spirit of modern architecture is inherently secular: The forms and tendencies can be appropriate for office buildings, government houses and museums, but churches adopt them at their peril.