Lately I’ve been reading up on Paul Virilio, French philosopher of technology, who started as a stained-glass artist and now practices as an architect designing public housing for the poor in Paris. A truly model Catholic philosopher. In particular, I’ve been mulling over a church he designed with Claude Parent, dedicated to St. Bernadette in Nevers, modeled after Virilio’s work on the the architecture of bunkers and Parent’s work on the function of the oblique. It’s an incredible building, poignant and beautiful, ugly and alienating, in its own way.
Attached here are some photos of the church, including a floor plan, the exterior, and the interior:
In Virilio’s earlier work “Bunker Archaeology,” resulting from his personal explorations of bunkers rendered useless after WWII, he writes “In this survival apparatus, life is not neutral. It takes an effort to become more subtle, more essential.” The Church of St. Bernadette is like that; the church is an Ark, a bunker for a world where “mutually assured destruction” was a live possibility, at least in the popular imagination. St. Bernadette herself is most famous for seeing Marian apparitions at Lourdes, France (there’s a beautiful Jesuit church called “Our Lady of Lourdes” here in Toronto, coincidentally). In other words, St. Bernadette is a symbol of healing and miracle in the odd world that is the 19th century, leading up to the horrors of the early 20th century. Virilio and Parent’s bunker church is not escapist or paranoid, but a monument to the persistence of life in a particular time, intended for active masses, for receiving the body of God in a sacred space that calls to mind both annihilation and redemption. I’m reminded, rightly or wrongly, of a phrase from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov that has always stuck with me: “If they drive God from the earth, we shall shelter Him underground!”
Here are some reflections by Virilio on the design of that church, from his book CREPUSCULAR DAWN:
As it happened, in Dusseldorf some neighborhoods still were in ruins, and a Luftchutstraum had been turned into a church. I went to mass in a bunker that is called the Church of the Holy sacrament. Seeing a place like that Christianized, a place of terror, haunted by fear, that’s what interested me. And so when I came back, I realized that in reality, nuclear terror had only just begun. Those were the days of the Atomic Cafe. Everyone was building bomb shelters. And I decided that the grotto at Lourdes was today’s bomb shelter. It is the place of horrors, the place of great fear, the end of the world. So I drew inspiration from the bunker to do the job. I chose the shape of a heart, the double ventricles, split in two, cut down the middle, broken. One of them is the choir for communion, and the other the choir for confession, where one says: “I admit that I am a total bastard, mea culpa.” What I admit, what you admit. You don’t say: “I’m wonderful, I’m pure.” Then, on the other hand, as soon as you realize that you’re a bastard, at that moment, we can love one another. This is the whole question of Judeo-Christianity. Anyway, this was my interpretation. And, of course, the chapel is an absolute monstrosity. It scares everyone. There were two projects that signed for the competition, and they asked Monseignor Vial to decide: “The other project being considered,” he told me, “is a small chapel with little angels, but there is so much hatred for your project, this pile of concrete, that I am going to choose it.” And since we were the winners, we were going to have to build this thing. Of course, there were immediate protests, articles in the local paper: “They have no right to build the chapel of God as a bunker…” Now just for you to know: Sainte-Bernadette’s chapel of Nevers is now classified as a historical monument.
Links to more on the churches (and where I got the images):