The Crumbling Cube

Surprise, surprise: an iconic example of contemporary architecture is falling apart, after only 25 years.

I have never had the misfortune of visiting the bleak, “Logan’s Run” Parisian district known as La Defense, but I have winced many times at seeing images of it onscreen or in print.  A monument to the bloated and bewildered state of architecture today, the centerpiece of this massive zit on the face of Paris is a structure known as La Grande Arche.  Opened on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution to complete an axis with the Arche de Triomphe, La Grande Arche is not really an arch, but rather a large office block: a cube with a huge hole cut in the middle of it.

George Weigel made this structure the jumping-off point for his seminal 2005 book, “The Cube and the Cathedral”, which explores some of the reasons why today, Europe and America tend to see the same issues very differently.  In an excerpt published in Commentary, Weigel noted that “La Grande Arche was nicknamed ‘Fraternity Arch'; also noted, as in every other guidebook I looked at, was the fact that within its space the entire cathedral of Notre-Dame, including towers and spire, would fit comfortably.”

Of course, the irony is that while the roughly 700-year old Notre-Dame de Paris hosts thousands of worshipers and visitors daily, the quarter-century old Grande Arche is now considered so unsafe that the building is completely closed to the public.  The rooftop views of Paris which Weigel described in his book have been cut off to visitors since 2010, thanks to elevator problems.  Only part of the cube is currently occupied, mostly by French government offices, since no one wants to rent space in the cramped, dark interiors.  And famously. the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once got stuck here, when the door handle of the ladies’ room broke off; her security detail had to break down the door to get her out.

La Grande Arche was expensive to build, and will be expensive to fix, with renovation estimates currently at $270 million.  That figure will no doubt rise as contractors and engineers begin to tackle a host of problems, such as replacing the failing marble panels which act as its skin with more durable granite.  While common sense would dictate tearing the thing down and starting over with something more traditional and practical, the building is also sadly emblematic of what has happened to France, and indeed much of Western culture, for two reasons.

First, the self-interested tendency of many contemporary architects to build whatever is theoretically possible and damn the consequences is a headache which we are passing along to future generations.  Rather than needing renovation after a century of use, these structures begin to fail almost immediately after they are built.  The so-called “innovation” which goes into their design guarantees that the architectural practice which comes up with the building in the first place, being paid millions of dollars to do so, gets a guarantee of additional income in 5, 10, or 25 years, when some aspect of their project needs an overhaul.

Second, while most articles and guidebooks mention the fact that the city’s Cathedral could fit inside La Grande Arche, they fail to see the irony of this statement.  La Grande Arche was built to celebrate the supposedly humanitarian French Revolution, yet like that revolution the core of the monument is a massive, meaningless void.  Anyone who has studied the French Revolution beyond the basic overview typically given in secondary school knows that the entire experience was quite literally a bloody, godless mess.  Whereas the American Revolution brought the people to their knees, in prayer for God’s guidance, the French Revolution brought people to their feet, in a blood-soaked, violent rejection of Faith.

The fact that modern-day France celebrates itself in this quite literally heartless building, which is now crumbling before our eyes, has broader implications.  There is a gaping hole at the center of Western culture at present, with the removal of Faith from the heart of who we are and what we do.  We have yet to hit on any satisfactory, alternative means of filling that void.

La Grande Arche, Paris

La Grande Arche, Paris

 

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Denver Diary: Darkness and Light

Concluding my brief series of posts on my recent trip to Denver, I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to two very different, but very beautiful buildings there, which told me a great deal about the people of that city.

The reader will recall that I was out in Colorado for a wedding, which took place at Holy Ghost Church in downtown Denver on Saturday night.  Because it was an evening event and I was serving as an usher, there was not a great deal of time nor any daylight available for me to wander around the church and pick up on the subtle details of the architecture, which this building has in spades.  I was told by those who had been there during the day that because the windows are not very large, there was not much more I could have seen, but nevertheless any building looks different depending on when you visit.  The play of darkness and light changes as the hours progress.

The present Holy Ghost Church was built between 1923-1943, with the long period of construction explained by the bane of many large and sumptuously decorated churches, insufficient funding.  It is an idiosyncratic mixture of both early Italian Renaissance and Spanish Plateresque elements, though the net effect put me more in mind of something Tolkien might have imagined, rather than the hill towns of Tuscany or the plains of Castile.  The mixture of different shades of beige and pink marble is very pleasing, and particularly for an evening wedding there was a glimmer and shine about the sanctuary which added to the formality of the occasion.

If I was to pick a single notable feature of the building to draw the visitor’s attention to however, it would be the arcade located in the narthex.  Two rows of short columns flank the main doors which give entrance to the nave, so that even before one enters and has to bless oneself, the high altar with its huge monstrance can be seen.  The arcade itself is very beautifully proportioned, but what I found particularly unusual was a series of geometrically carved oak panels between them, which are set into a kind of soffit hidden above the arcade.

These panels can be pulled down almost like overhead garage doors, to close the spaces between the columns.  Presumably these were designed for the environmental purpose of helping to keep out the chill of winter from the nave.  However for the wedding they worked perfectly as a kind of screen, to let people know that the bride and her attendants had arrived, since the panels were pulled down to keep the ladies of the wedding party hidden until that moment when the doors into the nave were opened and the procession began.

If Holy Ghost is a somewhat dark building referencing the 15th-16th centuries in Italy and Spain, Denver’s Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is a structure completely flooded with light, recalling the glories of 13th-14th century architecture in France.  Built between 1902-1911 and just a block away from the Colorado State Capitol, this is a very grand church, tall and wide but not particularly deep, put up in a remarkably speedy period of time for a prosperous and growing city.  Unlike Holy Ghost, the Cathedral obviously suffered a bit at the hands of the tambourine and felt banner crowd after Vatican II,  but the damage is not completely horrid nor ultimately irreparable.

The visitor is struck by two distinct yet related elements of the Cathedral upon entering the nave.  The first is the sense of height, particularly at the crossing, which is only accentuated by the many, enormously tall stained-glass windows from Munich that surround the space.  Second, the interior is almost blindingly white stone and marble, with very little color employed in either the architecture itself or in the furnishings and statuary.  Even the aforementioned windows, while featuring the rich colors typical of the Neo-Gothic movement in the figures themselves, are dominated by white stained glass forming the framework for the scenes.  It is surely appropriate for the Cathedral of the Mile High City to be not only a lofty structure, but one which calls to mind the snow-covered Rockies.

I attended Sunday mass at the Cathedral the morning after the wedding with several friends, both fellow wedding guests and some Denver tweeps (i.e. Twitter followers, for those of you not using Twitter) whom I had known for years but was finally able to meet for the first time.  Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila was the celebrant and yes, I got to kiss his ring and chat with him briefly after mass.  However the thing I will remember most about this church was something rather simple.

In a corner over to the right of the sanctuary in the Cathedral hangs a reproduction of the famous Polish icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, so dear to the late Blessed Pope John Paul II.  The reader may recall that JPII came to Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day, and during his stay celebrated mass at the Cathedral.  Hence the presence of a rather attractive and dynamic statue of him in the grounds of the Cathedral, and also of this icon inside the church itself.  The unexpected success of the Denver WYD had a tremendous impact on many young Catholics, particularly in this country, and one cannot underestimate its lasting influence on those collectively known as the “JPII Generation“, i.e., those of us who grew up knowing no other pope than John Paul II due to the length of his pontificate.

I left some flowers before the icon of the Blessed Mother and her Divine Son, and took a moment to pray for a couple of special intentions, as well as to reflect briefly on my trip to Denver – a place which in all honesty I had never planned to visit in my life.  Certainly now, following this experience, I would not say no to a return visit sometime, so that I could hang out with Greg and Jennifer Willits a bit longer, for example.  And a repeat stay at the Brown Palace Hotel would certainly be most welcome.

On a spiritual level, it was good to be able to visit these two very different, but very beautiful churches in the Mile High City, and see how much the Catholic community there cares about the Real Presence of Our Lord.  Both in the darkness of Holy Ghost Church, with its enormous gilded monstrance above the high altar, and in the light of Denver’s Cathedral, its high altar surrounded by gleaming white marble, candles, and flowers, the Divine was there, waiting for us to visit Him.  That Presence remains regardless of the contrast between darkness and light paralleled in our own lives, where just as in these two buildings, Christ is there in our dark moments and in our bright ones as well.

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Icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa,
Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Denver

A Lost Opportunity in Haiti

Yesterday the winners of the international design competition to build a new cathedral in earthquake-devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti were announced.  Regular readers of these pages will recall that I had shared my fears about this competition previously.  According to the University of Miami, which sponsored the competition, 250 architects from around the world submitted entries, and the winning design came from an architecture firm in Puerto Rico.  The new cathedral will preserve the facade of the old, but “veers from the original with a new, circular building that wraps around a central altar, accented by local art, with retractable walls that open to the garden for special occasions.”

Where to begin…

Some time ago, a group composed of fellow architecture aficionados/actual practitioners with whom I maintain friendly relations was discussing what sort of design competition they ought to hold.  At the time the destruction in Haiti was constantly in the news, and the images I had seen of the destruction of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in the capital had really struck me.   I suggested to the group that the clear answer for the subject of their competition was the Port-au-Prince Cathedral.  It is not often, after all, that one gets to build a brand-new cathedral from the ground up, and in an environment which not only has a great deal of history, but also a great deal to keep in mind with respect to building in an earthquake/hurricane zone.

Traditional Caribbean architecture varies from island to island, but there are certain commonalities which we can appreciate.  For example there is the prevalence of traditional ornament, somewhat simplified, and applied over flat surfaces which are often whitewashed or painted in bright colors.  We can see this in photographs of the Cathedral as it existed prior to the earthquake, with its almost sugary-pink and white color scheme, referencing a mixture of French Neo-Gothic design with other elements.  It called to mind the famous Basilica of the Sacred Heart in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre, but with a more tropical sense of joy.

Unfortunately, the new Cathedral looks less like a church and more like a movie theatre on the planet of Naboo, from the “Star Wars” universe.  While incorporating what remains of the old facade, and appearing at least from the outside to loosely keep to a basilica plan, this design does not say “timeless Caribbean”, it says “tacky po-mo California suburb.”  The square bell towers with long (presumably concrete) crosses imbedded in them and the church in the round are really not contemporary at all, unless by “contemporary” you mean 1974.  I will not even begin to try to explain why the horizontally ribbed walls look like giant black air filtration systems.

Once again here we are being presented with the same, ugly aesthetic that has continued to fascinate both architects and the powers that be within the Church since the mid-2oth century.  It is the same bad taste, bad theology, and bad liturgy which has brought us the overpriced white elephant known as the Taj Mahoney – i.e. Los Angeles Cathedral – the intergalactic landing bay known as Oakland Cathedral, and parish churches that look more like high school gymnasiums or drive-in banks rather than houses of worship.  The new Cathedral of Port-au-Prince will cost many millions of dollars to construct, and it will sit like a fat pimple on the landscape of Port-au-Prince for about ten years before it starts to leak and fall apart, as it will inevitably do.

It is all too telling then, that the passage quoted above rather gives away the game.  It notes that the new Cathedral will have retractable walls, which will open to the outdoors gardens for “special occasions”.  So in case anyone has missed my meaning to this point, allow me to clarify my point of view.

There is no more special occasion that takes place in any Catholic church, whether it be a Cathedral or a parish church or a tiny chapel, than the celebration of the mass – absolutely nothing else is more important: no wedding, no funeral, no concert, no conference, or any other event matters as much.  We cannot blame the architects for not seeing that, but we can blame those who selected this work as being worthy of such a function.  It is deeply unfortunate that the people of Haiti are now going to be saddled with an architectural monstrosity which will do nothing to remind them of the fact that here is the House of God, where He dwells in the Real Presence of the Eucharist reserved in the Tabernacle, and where He comes to us again and again in the Holy Sacrifice of the mass.  What a shame that this was not the focus of those who selected this inadequate, bad marriage as representative of the heart of the Catholic faith in Haiti.

Haiti

Winning design for the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, Port-au-Prince