Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Is that a church, or is that a public utility power station?"

My friend Tino Grisi, a rising academic who recently defended his doctoral dissertation on Emil Steffann at the University of Bologna, posted a short photo essay showing three similar views of a church parapet and belltower, all from the 20th century.

MATERIA Emil Steffann, Heilig Geist, — in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany.
FIGURA. Rudolf Schwarz, St. Michael (1954-1961)— in Frankfurt, Hessen, Germany.
FINZIONE. Allmann Sattler Wappner, Herz Jesu (1996-2000) — at München.

It's an interesting photo essay, asking us to consider "material" or "matter" in its core sense where we as architects take matter and use it to produce meaning. The meaning is somehow congruent with the material, and we are artists using our reason to impart form to the material to express in our buildings the depth of the meaning.  It is a sacramental intuition, deeply symbolic in the sense that the mediaevals understood symbol: how things are in the mind of God.

He then asks us to consider the "figure", or the image as detached from the material reality and the sacramental reality, but working within that language of forms for its meaning. This is a cultural phenomenon, what the linguist might call a "dead metaphor". It starts from reality of the symbol, but is necessarily a reductivist enterprise. How can the symbol retain meaning apart from its relationship to creation?  What tells us it's a church bell tower, and not a smoke stack at a public utility power station?

Finally, il dottore Grisi shows us the "fiction": a purely formalist expression intended to solve the utilitarian problem. Oh, you need some vertical gesture to point to "heaven"? Here, have a scaffold that expresses little more than the tectonic forces of gravity that must be overcome.  We'll even tattoo a cross into the skin so you think it "religious". And that church can be reduced to nothing more than a transparent glass box: as the US Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy once said: "It does not have to 'look like' anything else, past or present" since the building is merely "a shelter or 'skin' for the a liturgical action" (Environment and Art in Catholic Worship). In this fiction, there is  no necessary relationship between the exterior and what goes on inside. There is no mystery to be veiled, nothing sacred. It is nothing more than a soul-garage to park bodies.

To this photo essay I would add the final destruction of the sacred image: the church de/signed.

How to De/Sign a Church 

Such was Peter Eisenman's intention when he proposed his plan for the Church of the Year 2000, the architectural competition arranged by the Holy See and the Vicariate of Rome to commemorate the Jubilee Year. Even his admirers note that Eisenman,

endeavors to produce an architecture that is autonomous and self-referential—that is hermetically sealed off from all concerns except the process of its own fabrication and fabulation—make his works virtually impenetrable. (Robert Stern)
Philip Johnson admitted that he was unable to follow the tortuous path of Eisenmen's thinking. Eisenman is undoubtedly well versed in the Greek metaphysical system, as his seminal 1963 book, Toward an Understanding of Form in Architecture, attests. Yet by the time he was asked to propose a design for the Church of the Year 2000 he was more taken by, and working in action and reaction to the structuralist linguistic theories of de Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Chomsky, as well as the post-structural critiques through Derrida. His central question was not "how to design a church?", but rather the problem of "sign" itself: "It is not a question of denying the function and meaning of the object, but rather an attempt to question the legitimacy of the formal decisions made in their name."  So he deliberately eschews the figurative since for him, the main architectural problem is that, "the figural in architecture has always been lodged in the figurative."  This seems like an arcane concern, and one that could actually arguably be addressed through an understanding of the Catholic sacramental tradition of church building (e.g., the Church as the Celestial City or the Body of Christ does not need to look like a body or a city), but this does not seem to concern Eisenman. Instead he seeks to de/sign the church -- remove all intelligible significance from the formal expression of the church. 

Thus, Eisenman's entry is a deliberately aniconic and anti-sacramental building.  Rather than look for meaning in figuration or even an appeal to some formalist fiction, Eisenman takes on his clients on their own terms.  Why would the Vicariate of Rome ask three secular Jewish Americans, a nonpracticing German Lutheran, a post Catholic Spaniard, and a Japanese Buddhist to design a Catholic church? It's as jarring and as mind boggling as if the Pope had asked Jacques Derrida to write a catechism. Do you really want to see what the modern scientistic, postmodern world thinks of your "Church"? Here, let me show you: 

DE/SIGN: The Church of the Year 2000 Competition, Peter Eisenman 1995. Model.

Eisenman's plan is comprised of two separate, linear, irregular crystalline building forms that erupt from the site like icebergs, or primal chthonic masses shaped by geomechanical forces. These two forms grow out of the ground from the west, creating a valley between them, that accentuate the delta shape of the site. 

The northern mass contains the rectory, parish offices, and daily chapel in the ground floor; the southern mass contains the meeting rooms, social hall, and classrooms on this lower level. The irregular canyon-like space defined by these two forms is inexplicably marked “relics underground.” 

DE/SIGN: The Church of the Year 2000 Competition, Peter Eisenman 1995. Drawing.

This central canyon is, for Eisenman, “the space for community” as distinct from the side nave which are “the space for communion,” and so the social hall, parish offices, and residence are accessed from this space. At this base level are the major entrance into the church, two cave-like mouths at each end, east and west respectively, that serve as ramps up to the church proper on the upper floor. 

DE/SIGN: The Church of the Year 2000 Competition, Peter Eisenman 1995. Model.
This church is, inexplicably, divided into two naves with lateral banks of pews that parallel the erratic linear building shapes and seem to look into the central canyon. A triangular section is cut out of the nave and designated as “altar”, which seems to have no obvious relationship to the banks of pews or the canyon courtyard below.

Eisenman's basis for church building is not the human body, it's not the tent or the temple, it's not the Heavenly City. Rather it's the liquid crystal, and this for two "reasons".  The liquid crystal holds some interesting properties, and especially apt for the deconstructionist: the liquid crystal has no determined form, and its temporal shape is the unpredictable condition of a particular temperature and other physical forces. Therefore, it serves aptly to express nothing more than indeterminancy, lack of order, the condition of "in-between" where nothing is knowable and everything is in flux.
Secondly, the liquid crystal is an image of communications and the modern media. Eisenman explicitly draws the implication, noting that “The facades of the church in the Middle Ages were a form of media. The facades of our church become an other form of media, one between the diagram of the liquid crystal and a large-scale liquid crystal screen.”  Reality is what the media tells us it is. 

This then explains the liturgical and sacramental message of the project: the split naves do not communicate with each other, and they do not communicate with the sanctuary. Rather, the congregation communicates with each other through a "media wall": in an age of information everyone has to watch TV: there is no Mass, only mass media; there is no communion, only communication.

In short, Eisenman is calling the whole Catholic sacramental system whereby we participate in the lift of Christ and in real relationship with each other, a complete farce. Whatever is going on at the altar in the Mass, there is really no way to get there. There is no unity in the body of Christ but rather a bifurcated nave that communicate with each other by media walls and mediating spaces that isolate rather than unite.

This project however, is only episodic for Eisenman, who posits in the modern age a condition of complete alienation from meaning, culture, history, conventional symbol, and community. That is the logical and rational implications of the modern condition built on scientistic and physicalist prinicples, undoubtedly, and I do not criticize Eisenman for holding this position. It's either the Incarnation and order and relationship that infuse the Universe, or random happenstance and some temporary in-between status of chaos with nothing but chemicals and physical forces acting on material stuff in one of an infinite potential number of multiverses.

No, the real problem is with the silly prelates and clergy who turned to secular intellectuals to ask "how should we pray?" "what should our churches look like?", all in the name of some supposed dialogue with modernity that hold the Church in contempt. 


The fault here lies entirely with the Catholic Church leadership who did not ask for a true dialogue with modernity, but was rather content to sit at the feed of the modernist starchitects and let them hold forth in a pontificating monologue about the shape of Catholic worship.  Had the Church asked Richard Meier or Gunter Behnisch to model a church that speaks of the Body of Christ to us today; or Eisenman to envision a church that somehow anticipates the Heavenly Jerusalem; or to have Ando and Gehry and Calatrava find an appropriate container for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass we might have had an interesting discussion.  Instead we were given a whole series of projects that were pretty much stylistically indistinguishable from anything else these architects just knock out for their prestigious clients. 

But for an architect and thinker of Eisenman’s caliber, it is all the more a missed opportunity. The notion of liquid crystal formation is not alien to Catholic theology, and is even plausible as a trope for understanding the ultimate resolution of the particular and the universal in the sacramental order of creation. Such thoughts were penned a half century before Eisenman’s own intrigue with the liquid crystal by one of the great spiritual directors of the mid 20th century, the Trappist monk Dom Eugene Boylan. 

In Boylan’s own mediation on the liquid crystal in This Tremendous Lover, the healthy theological imagination shows that even cutting edge technology can speak of the mysteries of Christ and his Church:
There is a phenomenon in the natural order which illustrates a great principle of the supernatural order: it is the structure and the growth of crystals. Each crystalline substance has its own characteristic shape; wherever complete crystals occur, no only the whole crystal, but also each unit of it, has that particular shape. If a crystal be suspended in a suitable solution of the substance of which it is composed—the ‘mother liquor’ as it is called—that crystal will grow by drawing to itself material from the solution, forming it to its own image and likeness, and then uniting it to itself, yet so that the new and greater unity is an exact replica of the original nucleus and of each of the component units.

So it is with Christ. Lifted up on the cross, He draws all things to himself, as St. Irenaeus says, ‘He recapitulated in Himself the long history of men, ‘summing us up’ and giving us salvation, that we might receive again in Christ Jesus what we have lost in Adam, that is the image and likeness of God…

…There is, of course, individual diversity between the members but there is also a fundamental unity of pattern. To see it, one must first look below the surface of the individuating differences to observe the common pattern, and then stand back far enough from the complete unity to see it as a whole; for unless something of a consummation be glimpsed, there is difficulty in seeing the full significance of the individual destiny and of the common bond.


  1. I take it this piece of garbage will never be built but did somebody actually pay him to design that?

  2. Some sense of tradition is an integral part of the Christian - and human - approach. I see none of that here.