Jonathan Meades

Concrete cuckoo

Brutalism, however, turned worshippers into non-worshippers – and in its ecclesiastical form it became a concrete cuckoo, usurping the faith it was meant to serve

Concrete cuckoo
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The Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council provides a salutary example of a tiny ‘elite’ foisting ‘anti-elitist’ practices on the ‘non-elite’ — and coming a cropper. Vatican II’s dates are important. The Council was convened in 1962 and concluded in December 1965. These were the high years of the most uncompromising architectural modernism and, just as pertinently, of the craze for theatre-in-the-round, whose champions considered the proscenium arch to be an authoritarian (very possibly ‘fascist’) instrument inimical to ‘participation’.

Rome’s neophilia left much of the clerisy bewildered. It was admitting temporal fashions to a spiritual domain. Maynooth’s head was spinning. The Council’s bias was towards the Liturgical Movement’s long-hatched plans for modernisation. Hence ecumenicism, the vernacular and often prosey mass, herding the flock close to the host in an act of naif literalism and turning the matey, guitar-strumming priest to face that congregation.

Then there was the matter of iconoclasm, which proved to be a further form of self-harm. Extant churches were ‘cleansed’, stripped of altars, stained glass, paintings and dubious bondieuserie. The result was occasionally akin to the marvellously frigid post-Reformation ecclesiastical interiors of Pieter Saenredam. More often, it was doctrinally sanctioned vandalism, with added carpets.

Vatican II, in its eagerness to embrace the spiritual analogues of Harold Wilson’s white heat, dispensed with what Clement Attlee had dismissed as religion’s ‘mumbo jumbo’: but this was the very stuff that appealed to the gullible, which constituted the Church’s USP: dodgy theatricality, pious ritual, high formality, po-faced earnestness, tonic joylessness, subjugation by the invocation of a mighty force. The essence of the sacred, the unknown and the unseen, was, apparently, to be found in these properties that defined the entire apparatus of mystery.

St Bernardette of Lourdes in squeaky rubber or plastic; 3-D Christs with multiple halos; Virgin Mary alarm clocks; toilet-roll holders that play ‘Ave Maria’; fun-fur Last Suppers; the Stations of the Cross in artisan-tooled low-relief caramel Naugahyde….The purveyors of holy tat possess a surer grasp of the faithful’s taste than the Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, Pierre-Marie Théas, a former résistant, who commissioned the town’s immense subterranean basilica, and the architect Pierre Vago, who designed it for the centenary of Bernadette’s apparitions in 1958.

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Pierre Vago's Basilica of Saint Pius X, or the Underground Basilica, at Lourdes[/caption]

It was one of several churches, going as far back as Dominikus Böhm’s work in Cologne and Rudolph Schwarz’s near Würzburg in the late-1920s, that anticipated and shaped Vatican II’s decrees on architecture.

The most celebrated of these is Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut (1955), in the southernmost Vosges at Ronchamp. That great, ethically dicey, megalomaniacal, atheistic architect’s ability to design a ‘holy’ place was not conditional on faith, unfounded belief, but on the suggestive management of space, the control of light, the invention of forms and the plastic rendering of his paintings’ repetitive shapes. The numinous was achieved by stage management. It was not so different from a morally delinquent vegan designing a marvellous abattoir.

Catholics take the road to Santiago de Compostela, a road that had fallen into desuetude until Franco had the wheeze of exploiting piety for tourism’s sake. Muslims perform hajj. Architects must go once in their life to Ronchamp: any visiting Catholic is liable to be muscled out of the way by jargon-spouting acolytes in black clothes and round-framed spectacles.

The Liturgical Movement had encouraged polite amendments to the traditional disposition of nave, transept, chancel, apse etc. Vatican II went much further. It gave carte blanche to architecture’s sculpturally inclined wild men, the brutalist successors to the rogues of a century before. It is nigh on impossible to discern from, say, the Mariendom (1968) at Neviges, south of Essen, what the brief could have been other than ‘enjoy yourself, loudly, mein Kumpel!’ An exhortation Gottfried Böhm (son of) obeyed with relish in the mid-1960s.

Böhm’s hyperbolic expressionism, cinematic rather than architectural, is overwhelming. It alludes to penitents’ hoods. Its forms are threateningly zoomorphic and geomorphic. The play of beams dense with particulates and inky shadow is melodramatic. Whether so restlessly aggressive a building is appropriate to contemplation or to any celebration other than that of human inventiveness is questionable — but the same might be said of the great Gothic cathedrals that are more monuments to man’s engineering capabilities than to a wrathful god and carnage at Golgotha.

The Mariendom, Claude Parent and Paul Virilio’s bunker-like Sainte-Bernardette du Banlay (1966) in Nevers, Walter Förderer’s deliriously swooning churches at Hérémence (1971) and Chur (1969) in Switzerland, the Wotruba Church (1976) in Vienna and Richard Gilbert Scott’s Our Lady Help of Christians (1967) and Church of St Thomas More (1969) in eastern Birmingham belong not merely to the age of brutalism but to that of architectural determinism, which held that places and spaces can condition behaviour.

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Walter Förderer's Church of St Nicolas in Hérémence[/caption]

It fails to survive rational scrutiny, but that is not to say that it was without foundation. The question is how? It would be astonishing had such a radical redefinition of places of worship not touched worshippers in some way or other. It has most evidently touched them by turning them into non-worshippers, though there are evidently many further causes of non-observance (court reports passim).

I have not voluntarily attended a religious service since the age of seven. My reaction to communicants is to pity them: those wafers! That ‘wine’! The twee cannibalism! The sheer credulity! But the fate of those buildings where they submit to and share their folkloric rites and supernatural delusions is important. Brutalism, too, was pretty much a faith. In its ecclesiastical form it usurped the faith it was meant to serve. A concrete cuckoo. It was an emphatically physical form of architectural sublimity, an expression of man’s imperiousness and of the conviction that technology would enable us to prevail.

Half a century on such unalloyed optimism seems to embarrass us. And the buildings that signified that optimism are being fought over. The vandals are winning. Here are just a few of their rubble-strewn secular triumphs: Imperial College’s halls of residence, Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon’s mighty oeuvre in Gateshead and Portsmouth, Claude Parent’s Rafale in Rheims, Jean Dumont’s Tripode at Nantes. The world must be cleansed before it is renewed, again. Back to zero, again. Result, same again.

Jonathan Meades’s film on modern churches, The Absentee Landlord, will be shown on 4 June at the Whitechapel Gallery as part of a retrospective of his television work. His ‘anti-cookbook’, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, is published by Unbound on 20 April.