The Brutality of Experience
December 13, 2012 10:34 AM   Subscribe

Brutal Baroque: An Ode To Midcentury Modern Churches: French photographer Fabrice Fouillet traveled across Europe photographing some of the most important examples of postwar churches, creating a catalogue of the spaces called Corpus Christi.

One image--and architect--articulates the stories behind this era of architecture. Guillaume Gillet, the architect of the remarkable Brutalist cathedral, Notre Dame de Royan, was imprisoned by the Germans only seven years before he started work on the church. While being held in a camp, he worked with other prisoners to create the famed French Chapel, a tiny room underneath the roof of their barracks decorated with exquisite religious murals.
posted by IvoShandor (18 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Although I know absolutely zip about European modernist churches, I do know that if you're passing near Columbus IN it's worthwhile to check out North Christian Church. You might need to take the architecture tour (which is worth it) to get to go in. Call first and make sure the tour you're taking goes inside - different ones have slightly different itineraries.

It's a really beautiful church with an odd sort of full immersion baptismal tub with stairs...but sort of a beautiful tasteful midcentury full immersion tub. The grounds are also lovely.

I have family around there, and thus I know that this church is losing membership - it's Disciples of Christ, which is a more liberal church, and the town (like Indiana generally) is skewing more rightwing/evangelical. Certainly a pity.

Columbus has a ton of modernist architecture due to the interest and support of a foundation funded through Cummins Engineering, the town's big employer - a family-run business with a fairly strong noblesse oblige sensibility which has done quite a lot for the town that they did not have to do (say I as an anarchist who distrusts big business on principle). J Irwin Miller, whose family runs Cummins, was interested in modern architecture (and attended North Christian Church) and was not such a bad old stick as rich white guys go, especially in Indiana. He apparently chaired the National Council of Churches' Commission on Religion and Race, which was one of the sponsors of the March on Washington - and if you know Indiana like I know Indiana (where the Klan has never really died out) you know that's a fairly committed thing to do, even in the fairly liberal sixties.
posted by Frowner at 10:47 AM on December 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I rather like some of these to look at quickly in a picture, but I wonder how they are for active congregations; I know a lot of the narrative of modernist churches is that congregants hated them when they were first built, but I don't know if that's still true.

I think that I would find these spaces strange and alienating to worship in; I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:54 AM on December 13, 2012

Gorgeous, all of them are so gorgeous.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:59 AM on December 13, 2012

Absolutely gorgeous.

Something similar but mostly less dramatic from Sweden:
Church Buildings in Gothenburg Parish 1940-1999 (PDF)

Örnäsets kyrka (1963)
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:00 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow. I love them all.

But for a design website, man, that interface sure is lousy. Also: "altAr".
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:01 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love these things.

This is a must-see if you visit Montreal. The dome was completed in 1939, but elements of the interior are (very obviously) from 1967.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:03 AM on December 13, 2012

I approve of Brutalist houses of worship.

God ain't beanbag.
posted by Egg Shen at 11:04 AM on December 13, 2012

I normally don't care much for Modernist churches but MAN the Liverpool Catholic Cathedral is an experience. Pictures don't do it justice, it was everything the modernists wanted to do, strip away the old symbols and accumulated iconography and bring it back to the basic idea of the thing. It's disturbing primal in feeling, like entering a dark cave and being inducted into a mystery religion. It evoked all these base religious sensations I didn't know I had while keeping the recognizable symbols of the religion pared down and abstract so they could be seen new. It's really pretty freaking amazing.
posted by The Whelk at 11:10 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I felt that way about the big modernist cathedral in Frisco.
posted by PinkMoose at 11:15 AM on December 13, 2012

I know a lot of the narrative of modernist churches is that congregants hated them when they were first built

As far as I can tell, a) there is hardly any public building that is not without its critics or dissatisfied; b) if they were so hated when they were built WHY WERE SO MANY OF THEM BUILT? It wasn't some damned cabal.

What happened to many churches was a social transformation as they changed from what in many cases had been downtown and/or neighborhood-oriented churches to suburban congregations with vast parking lots, education facilities, and sometimes even recreation. The design of the nave itself is only part of it.

Also, be sure to note that Brutalism is only one type of Modernism, and that technically Mid-Century Modern is distinct from pre-war Modernism, and can be considered a catch-all term for buildings that don't fit a more precise definition of style.
posted by dhartung at 11:20 AM on December 13, 2012

I kind of like mid-century modern churches. It's like a big spaceship full of Jesus landed in your suburban neighborhood.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:41 AM on December 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

The town adjacent to one I used to live in had a crazy Brutalist church shaped like a truncated, crooked pyramid. It was built in 1971, and the interior is just as imposing (if not more imposing) than the exterior.

After only a few years of use, chunks of concrete started to fall from the ceiling -- problematic when it's almost a hundred feet up in some places -- and it was condemned. My understanding is that they can't afford to demolish it now, so it just sits there empty.

Maybe God doesn't appreciate Brutalist architecture.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:11 PM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't think this qualifies as brutalism, but no survey of post war church architecture is really complete without Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut.
posted by dnash at 1:09 PM on December 13, 2012

posted by destro at 2:42 PM on December 13, 2012

I grew up in the United Church of Canada -- which, to its credit, is barely a religion -- and in young suburbs at that, so my experience of church interiors for the first eighteen years of my life was just beige rooms with somewhat high, slanted ceilings and some tacky tapestries of rainbows and doves and stuff. Maybe a cross on the back wall. Maybe. Stained glass windows, yes, but they didn't depict anything but coloured rectangles.

Then I went to Europe and saw inside some of the big old cathedrals, and, well, holy fuck. I'd seen them plenty in pictures of course, but in person? Those spaces are literally awesome, and extremely humbling, as if God Himself built them. A religious experience. And that was as an areligious tourist, architecture only, without any of the ritual elements or anything.

(To be perfectly honest, more than anything else, seeing those cathedrals left me grateful that my childhood churches were so utterly unimpressive; it made leaving them and never going back very, very easy.)

I don't know if they'd have been so amazing if they were just fifty years old and made of reinforced concrete, but these photos do seem to suggest that it's possible.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:45 PM on December 13, 2012

It's certainly not Brutalist, but my wife's sort-of Catholic and I attended some services in this church. My comment history reveals a certain antipathy toward religion, but the interior certainly confers a solemnity and gravitas that's lacking in a modern-style "this is a walmart with seating" church. Perhaps, if I'd attended services in an imposing and impressive modern structure or a Catholic church with beautiful tile mosaics and soaring arches and domes, religion would have stuck with me more; thankfully, my memories are mostly badly-built white rooms with ugly lighting, uncomfortable seats, and sound systems that always made the folksy minister's voice crackle with feedback.

Thanks, poor churches, for preventing me from being permanently implanted with your mind-poison!
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:14 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love brutalist architechture. It speaks to my childhood in Cold War Europe. It never occurred to me that a church in which I spent many afternoons giggling, singing off color words to ancient hymns, and generally not paying attention while the nuns shot us dirty looks, was a masterpiece of brutalism. It was just the church that my school was attached to - The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption. We used to call it the Washing Machine Agitator for obvious reasons, and thought it must have been a great joke by the architect that every afternoon when the sun hits a certain height in the sky, a perfect silhouette of a gigantic uptilted breast is cast in shadow on the vast expanse of one of the quadrants of the soaring roof. I always did love the fact that you could see glimpses of the City through the low windows at the corners. This was in the 70s and the Cathedral was very new, so I don't remember some of the interior embellishments, some of which must have come later.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 9:01 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is reminding me that this mid-century synagogue close to where I work and live is about to be knocked down.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:48 PM on December 13, 2012

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