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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Common Sense in the West Conference: July 17-20

Here’s a terrific opportunity for you to check out if you’re in the New York City area, or looking to get away for what sounds like quite a weekend for debate and discussion:

An upcoming conference co-sponsored by the Adler-Aquinas Institute, Renewing the West by Renewing Common Sense, will give those of you with a philosophical bent the chance to meet with others of like mind, in order to consider some of the issues facing Western society today, as old bonds fracture and need repair or replacement.  How does the church receive funding from the state going forward, if said funding increasingly has moral and ethically problematic strings attached to it? How do we see the question of theological anthropology now, in the wake of the new, trendy version of atheism? What can we learn from the ideas and leadership styles of figures like Ronald Reagan and St. John Paul II?  What lessons about tyranny from Socrates are still applicable in the present socio-political climate?

These are some of the topics to be considered the weekend of July 17-20 at the inaugural international conference, which will be held at the beautiful Seminary of the Immaculate Conception on Long Island  Registration is still available, and includes accommodation, meals, and receptions, but spaces are becoming limited.  You can find out how to register by visiting the Adler-Aquinas Institute site.

Even if you cannot attend, several of the talks at the conference will be streamed live on YouTube. Some of those which will be streamed include presentations on humanism and management, Dante, and the work of G.K. Chesterton.  If you subscribe to the conference’s YouTube channel, you will be able to catch those selected for broadcast.  In addition, selected papers from the conference will also be made available over on the Dead Philosophers’ Society.

For further information, and to be a part of the conference as it is going on, be sure to visit the conference Facebook page, and follow them on Twitter.  Those attending the conference or wanting to interact with those who are, will be using the hashtag #CommonSense to keep the conversation going.  The organizers are very keen on having those participating engage with the speakers and other attendees, so your thoughts, questions, and comments will be most welcome!

Immaculate Conception Seminary Huntington, New York

Immaculate Conception Seminary
Huntington, New York

 

One Day, Three Very Different Women

Sometimes the calendar presents us with juxtapositions that, were they presented in a film script, would be dismissed as being too implausible to be believed; today is one of those days.  For not only is March 25th the birthday of feminist Gloria Steinem, it’s also the birthday of author Flannery O’Connor, in addition to being the Feast of the Annunciation,  when the Virgin Mary said “Yes” to becoming the mother of Jesus Christ.  Clearly, each of these women has left us very different legacies.

Steinem’s legacy is, in some sense, being debated this very day by Hobby Lobby and others at the U.S. Supreme Court, on the question of whether businesses can be forced to pay for contraceptive devices such as IUD’s which they find morally objectionable on religious grounds.  One can imagine Steinem’s opinion of this court case without even having to look it up.  Steinem has entered her twilight years with what could charitably be referred to as a checkered and hypocritical legacy, at best.

Of course, Steinem leapt to fame in 1963 for doing a good thing: exposing how women were abused by the Playboy organization.  The problem is, the pornographic world we now inhabit, as a result of the so-called liberation which she helped usher in, is unquestionably more degrading and abusive in its objectification of women than what preceded it.  Steinem’s efforts have led to the enslavement of millions of women AND men to the recreational sex and pharmaceutical industries, the spread of sexually transmitted disease to a staggering 1/3 of the U.S. population, the creation of countless commitment-free relationships, and the explosion of illegitimacy across all levels of society.  Not to mention, of course, that as she marks her 80th birthday, and wipes away the hoary cobwebs from her mind, one suspects Steinem will not pause to think about the millions of American children who will never see their own birthdays, thanks to her efforts on behalf of legalizing abortion on demand.

Flannery O’Connor is someone altogether different: not just from Steinem, but indeed from most people.  Her fiction is not easy to read, in that it is sometimes violent, strangely mystical, and can involve unusual sentence constructions.  There is also a dark, wry humor in her work, which takes some getting used to.  My most beloved professor in college loved Flannery O’Connor, and she tried desperately to get us to like her writing also.  However whether because of being a Yankee rather than a Southerner, or having a deep-seated aversion to reading about physical violence, for years I was unable to understand or appreciate her work.

Then recently, I read reports of the publication of a newly-discovered prayer journal from O’Connor’s student days in Iowa.  This piqued my interest, not so much because I was interested in changing my mind about her as a fiction writer, but because some of the excerpts struck me as being those of a kindred soul.  I read quotes such as, “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story- just like the typewriter was mine,” and I thought, “I *get* that.”  So I did what any sensible fellow should do under the circumstances: I bought a copy, and hopefully will be reading it a bit later on this Lenten season.

Finally we get to the great Feast of the Annunciation, on which Flannery O’Connor was born, and because of which her first name was actually “Mary”, in honor of the Blessed Mother – who as we know from St. Luke’s Gospel, said “Yes” when asked to become the mother of the Messiah. The Annunciation was a hugely popular subject in the history of Western art, as anyone who has studied art history knows.  One reason is that it allowed the artist to imagine what an angelic messenger appearing from Heaven might look like, as opposed to simply painting the humdrum and everyday.

Yet portraying the Annunciation also allowed a creative mind to consider what sort of person Mary herself was, at the moment she appeared on the stage of world history.  Keep in mind that, apocrypha and pious legends aside, other than Isaiah’s prophecy about her we really know nothing at all about Mary from Scripture up until this very moment when she consents to follow God’s Will for her.  What came after, of course, happened because she chose to cooperate, instead of trying to defeat or resist His Will.

In his “Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus” of 1333, the Sienese painter Simone Martini portrayed the Virgin Mary not as a cowering, uncertain and now-pregnant teenager, nor as a self-confident queen setting out to conquer the world, but as a woman who has just been presented with some very unsettling news by an unexpected visitor.  Had Steinem been present she would have called Gabriel all sorts of names culled from reading too much Simone de Beauvoir, and rushed the Blessed Mother off to the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic.  Yet there is a timeless humanity here, in this nearly 800-year-old depiction of Mary, which I suspect O’Connor, who was so often presented with unexpected and indeed unwanted news in her own life, would have related to.

The difference lies in the reaction of each of these women to what they are being confronted with.  Whereas Steinem’s choice has always been to blame others for her own misery, and to try to drag down as many into misery with her as she can, O’Connor’s decision was to follow God’s Will in her life, no matter how difficult that might have been.  In this, she had a deeper understanding of the “Yes” to God’s Will, given by the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, and the implications of such consent, than do those of us who live lives of relative comfort and good health.

In her story “Temple of the Holy Ghost”, O’Connor describes a young girl on the cusp of adolescence, who worries that she can never become a saint.  Through some unusual and unexpected events, she experiences a profound spiritual revelation about the Will of God, even though that lesson is not apparent to those around her.  As the story ends, one senses that she has begun a great spiritual journey, as did the Virgin Mary, beginning on this Feast of the Annunciation, and as did Flannery O’Connor, who grew as both a writer and a woman of faith.  These are the two women among the three whom we should celebrate, even as we pray for the conversion of the other, who will no doubt be receiving the lion’s share of attention on this day.

Detail of "The Annunciation" by Simone Martini (1333) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Detail of “The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus” by Simone Martini (1333)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence