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
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.
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.
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