Oopsie: Moral Lessons in Failed Architecture

Today the Church marks the Dedication of the Basilicas of St. Peter and of St. Paul in Rome. Thinking in an architectural vein, I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to consideration of some aspects of building from which we can draw important lessons about ourselves. Certainly when looking at a beautiful church, we are inspired to reflect on matters Divine, or when observing a monument to a fallen hero, we reflect on honor, self-sacrifice, and so on. Yet what ought we to think about when the structure under consideration is one which has failed?

Readers in the Washington metropolitan area may already be aware that yesterday afternoon a 50-pound chunk of concrete fell from the ceiling of the Farragut North station onto the train platform. The underground stations of DC’s subway system, commonly referred to as the Metro, feature coffered, vaulted ceilings that have become iconic examples of mid-20th century modernism. Road repair workers on Connecticut Avenue, which runs just above the station hall, apparently got a little too aggressive in their debris-removal efforts, and caused the damage. Fortunately no one was injured, though if the accident had taken place just two hours later, one shudders to think what might have happened on the crowded rush-hour platform.

Throughout the history of architecture, there are numerous examples of human actions, intentional or otherwise, which have led to disaster or near-misses, and many have served as teaching points in Christian thought. For example, in the Bible we read about Joshua, in his eponymous Book, and his troops bringing down the walls of Jericho; Samson also comes to mind, as he brings down the Temple of Dagon in the Book of Judges. Christ Himself warns about bad construction methods in His parable about the man who built his house upon a foundation of sand, and in last Sunday’s Gospel readings He warned of the destruction of Herod’s Temple, which occurred in 70 A.D.

Perhaps the most famous architectural destruction of the Middle Ages was the collapse of the choir at the Cathedral of St. Peter at Beauvais, which in itself is almost a reminder of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Work began on the structure in 1225, but the vaults collapsed in 1247. This should have been a warning to the architects and the diocese that they were striving a bit too much. Yet never let it be said that human beings, in general, learn their lesson.

After the collapse the bishop of the day asked the architect to not only begin rebuilding, but to add an additional 16 feet to the height of the choir. This reads either as an act of defiance or stupidity against the forces, natural and otherwise, which brought down the cathedral in the first place. The resulting new, 154-foot tall choir would become the tallest choir in Europe at the time.

This new choir was completed in 1272 but – quelle surprise – the new vaults collapsed in 1284. There is still a great deal of debate and conjecture among experts as to why this took place. In all frankness, this armchair architect would speculate that part of the problem was the hubris of the diocese and the architects in over-reaching their architectural abilities.

Rather than learning from its mistakes however, once again the diocese ignored the lesson it had twice earlier been taught, and in 1569 completed a gigantic, 500-foot tall tower over the crossing of the cathedral. To give some sense of the scale of this massive structure to the reader, this is about 20 feet taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza. At the conclusion of the High Mass for Ascension Thursday on April 30, 1573, the bishop, concelebrants, acolytes, choir and congregation had all just left the cathedral to walk in procession, when the tower collapsed; fortunately no one was killed or injured, but imagine if this had taken place in a structure packed with worshipers in the middle of the celebration of the Eucharist.

While it is very easy to look back on these events, long before the advent of modern construction methods, and comfort ourselves by saying this would not happen today, the truth is that such things always have and always will occur. Whether it is a relatively small-scale mess, such as occurred in the Metro station yesterday, a major catastrophe like the fatal design flaws of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, or a terrifying near-miss such as the near-collapse of the overly-ambitious CitiCorp Tower in Manhattan, there is a long list of examples for the reader’s consideration. All of the technology, wealth, and know-how we possess here in the United States does not preserve us from potential calamity when the structures that surround us fail.

In some respects the construction of a grandiose, very tall building is at times evocative of blasphemy. An act of blasphemy is really always a childish, futile act, like throwing a pebble at the sun – or indeed, as in a film I recall from childhood, shooting an arrow toward Heaven from the top of the Tower of Babel. Yet blasphemy can lead, easily enough, to the far greater sin of causing scandal. And similarly, in the case of overly-ambitious construction, ill-advised construction can lead to the injury and death of others through sloth, egotism, or both.

Humanly-built structures are subject to two potentially deadly opposing factors which, when working in tandem, spell disaster: human error and human ego. Nothing lasts forever, of course, though a well-built building will last longer on this planet than any of us will (whether there are any well-built buildings currently being raised by most of the world’s current crop of popular architects is a separate point of debate.) In the end, man’s desire to tame the universe and bend it to his will is ultimately a futile one, as he struggles against forces such as gravity, erosion, seismic shifts, and his own mortality, which he cannot ever hope to fully control.

“The Building of The Tower of Babel” by The Bedford Master (c. 1423)
British Library, London.

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