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.


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


Cuckoos from the Ashes

Beginning in the second half of the 20th century, Western culture developed a fixation on bringing ugliness out of the ruins of loveliness, at least when it comes to the rebuilding of churches destroyed in wars or natural disasters.  We can all point to some examples of how these shotgun weddings between prelate and architect in recent decades usually turned out to be an unhappy ones for the rest of us to behold.  So with a significant new church-building project beginning to take shape in Haiti, which will no doubt garner a great deal of international attention, one cannot help but wonder whether what will rise from the ashes of that country will be not a glorious phoenix, but rather a marauding cuckoo.

The reader is no doubt familiar with the mythological phoenix, a bird which sets itself on fire in order to produce an egg.  After this self-destruction, a magnificent offspring hatches and rises from the ashes, symbolizing new life coming from death.  This is one reason why the phoenix was adopted very early on in Christian iconography as a symbol which would remind the viewer of how Jesus rose from the dead.

Of course from ornithology we know that no species of bird actually comes into the world in this way, but we do know about the rather curious way that a cuckoo is hatched.  Many species of cuckoo lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, in what is known as parasitic brooding.  When the fledgling cuckoo hatches, it kills its adopted siblings in the nest, or the cuckoo’s “birth parents” will kill the other little birds for it.  [N.B.: Next time you smile at the charm of hearing the chirping of a cuckoo clock, you might think about that gentle bit of nature.]

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, international relief focused on caring for the physical needs of those who survived it.  Burying the dead, tending to the wounded, and feeding, clothing, and sheltering the survivors were of primary importance.  Infrastructure had to be rebuilt, services restored, and the like, in a desperately poor country which never really had much of these things to begin with.  At the same time however, the majority Catholic population of Haiti needed to have their spiritual needs attended to, since food rations and water alone do not provide hope for something beyond surviving the next 24 hours.

The losses to the Haitian Catholic community as a result of the earthquake were staggering.  Not only was the historic Cathedral in Port-au-Prince completely destroyed, along with many other churches, but so were the offices of the Archdiocese and the Apostolic Nunciature, i.e. the Vatican embassy.  Even more tragically, the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, the Vicar-General of the Archdiocese, and dozens of seminarians were among those killed in the disaster.

More than two years have passed since the earthquake, and now an architectural competition is underway to submit designs for a new Cathedral in Port-au-Prince.  A look at the photographs displayed on the website for the competition reveals the extent of the devastation of the old building, and why it is almost certainly impossible to rebuild the cathedral to look as it was before the disaster.  According to the competition site, the destruction was made all the more complete by the theft of metal from the ruins of the Cathedral, including the zinc frames holding the few remaining stained glass windows that might otherwise have been preserved.

Part of me wishes that the place could be rebuilt, since it was such a lovely and appropriate building.  It was a very feminine, graceful church, mixing Victorian Neo-Gothic with some of the fantastical elements we see in contemporary French churches of the time, such as the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris. And the pastel pink and white color scheme used both on the interior and exterior of the building spoke of its Caribbean heritage.

However this is not to be, and if recent examples are anything to go by, I am afraid the Haitian people had better prepare themselves for the arrival of a rather ugly hatching in their midst. For example, the once-majestic Coventry Cathedral in England, which was destroyed during World War II, was replaced with a dark, oppressive, brick and concrete monstrosity. The lavishly-decorated Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, which was also destroyed in World War II, received two utterly godless glass boxes which are locally referred to as the “lipstick case” and “powder box”, since they look like late 50’s/early 60’s accessories from a lady’s purse.

A recent example from this side of the pond is perhaps my personal favorite – if “favorite” is the right word for such horrors. Even before he used the excuse of damage from the 1994 Northridge Quake in California,  Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles had been trying to have the lovely old Cathedral of St. Vibiana demolished, so that he could build something more in keeping with his appallingly bad taste on the same site. After years of legal battles with the city, historic preservation groups, his own parishioners, and so on, the Archdiocese finally obtained land nearby, on which was built a monstrosity popularly known as the Taj Mahoney. The lovely old Cathedral was de-consecrated, and turned into a local community cultural center – which, by the way, is still standing just fine, thanks very much.

I will admit that I am, to some degree, rolling out the “jump to conclusions mat” with regard to this design competition for the new Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. After all, the submissions have not even been entered yet, let alone the three finalists selected. And once a winner is chosen, it will still take many years and many millions of dollars in fundraising to build the winning design.

That being said, it is important to keep in mind that churches are not structures which are built every day. They are first and foremost buildings whose purpose is to glorify God, and serve as a place to worship Him.  From a practical standpoint a cathedral, which is the church that serves as the seat of the local bishop, is a monumental undertaking, particularly when it is being built in a country’s capital. Cathedrals always feature prominently in both the religious and secular life of a city, not only in their primary role as the House of God, but also as venues for the Church to receive and meet with members of the local community and with civic authorities.

Before anything gets decided, those who make the final selection for this competition should keep in mind not only the past and the future of Haiti, but also the unique opportunity they have to build something beautiful and inspiring that will last for centuries. Anyone who looks at the three examples I gave in this post and concludes that the replacements were better than the originals should not be allowed anywhere near a voting slip in this matter.  A country like Haiti, which is so much in need of hope after unimaginable devastation and sadness, ought not to put its resources into building something that is trendy now, and then maligned less than a generation later. In looking to the future, I would challenge the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince to remember that over the past 2,000 years, time and again history has shown that the most glorious, lasting, and well-loved houses of worship are those which seek to put God first.

Cathedral of The Assumption, prior to the 2010 earthquake
Port-au-Prince, Haiti