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Church Always Builds on Its Past

June 09, 1996|Michael J. Lewis

PHILADELPHIA — Does this scenario sound familiar? An old, beloved church has grown shabby, perhaps dangerous and is slated for demolition. A parade of sophisticated architects is enlisted to plan the controversial replacement, a dazzling modern building. The defenders of the old church raise protests but, in the end, watch their landmark fall into rubble. And through it all, the powerful bishop turns a cold shoulder to criticism, aloof and imperious.

As you have guessed, the aloof bishop is not Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles. It is the bishop of Rome, Pope Julius II, perhaps the greatest art patron of all history. And his controversial modern building is the basilica of St. Peter's in Rome, the work of architecture's greatest "dream team," including Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini.

Michael J. Lewis, assistant professor of art history at Williams College, is the author of "The Politics of the German Gothic Revival" (MIT).

If ever there were a case for historic preservation, the Constantinian basilica of St. Peter's should have been on the short list. Finished in 329 by Emperor Constantine, Rome's first Christian emperor, the brick basilica stood on Rome's holiest site, the spot where, according to church tradition (and supported by modern archeology), St. Peter was buried after his crucifixion. Here was a building that had survived a millennium, where St. Augustine prayed and Attila pillaged, a seemingly indestructible rock athwart the stream of history.

But Julius II was not what we would call a preservationist. For him, the ground was sacred, but not the bricks that stood on it. He commissioned Bramante to replace the longitudinal basilica with a centrally planned church in the new fashion of the Renaissance. In 1506, the cornerstone was laid, and Constantine's building was discarded with no more ceremony than a worn suit.

Julius was ultimately vindicated, but the aftershocks of the demolition lingered for decades. A century later, another Constantinian basilica was slated for replacement, the church of San Giovanni in Laterno. The architect was that turbulent genius Borromini, who accomplished two goals generally felt to be irreconcilable: He created, in effect, an entirely new building, and he conserved the whole of the original basilica. His approach was to jacket the church's disintegrating brick walls in a mantle of Baroque cladding. A new church appeared from out the old, like a butterfly, though here the butterfly was simultaneously cocoon, lovingly preserving its former self.

But Borromini's example is the exception. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, old buildings have fallen to make way for the new, often with a striking lack of sentimentality. Of course, those people most affected--the parish members--have not always viewed this process happily. Not only do they lose a cherished landmark, but they are also expected to contribute toward its replacement. Occasionally an art historian, when well into his cups, suggests that this explains one of the mysteries of medieval architecture: Why the building of so many cathedrals was preceded by suspicious and convenient fires. Chartres Cathedral is one of these, Cologne another. There is dark muttering about arson in the service of art, and then a sheepish denial about practicing the Oliver Stone conspiracy theory of art history.

Still, in the Middle Ages, cathedrals were built slowly, incrementally. The older building was replaced, fragment by fragment--choir, then transept, then nave. The slow pace of masonry construction made it possible to assimilate the new, even while giving one decades to bid farewell to the old. In the 20th century, clearance and construction are lightning affairs--and the psychological traumas of the rapid changes to our landscape gnaw at us.

And so the example of Pope Julius is still with us, holding out the eternal hope that, if only we are willing to sacrifice the good, we might have the great. Naturally, any time an architect wishes to justify the demolition of a building, he is likely to invoke the example of Julius II. On one memorable occasion, architect Robert Venturi stood up at a demolition hearing and announced, "there wouldn't have been a Renaissance" unless people had been willing to demolish Gothic buildings.

As an argument, this is unassailable--but it is also a kind of tautology. It rests on a kind of false syllogism: 1. The great buildings of the past often replaced earlier structures; 2. This modern building is replacing an earlier structure; 3. Therefor the new building will be an improvement.

This sort of thinking is a repeat of what used to be called the Whig view of history, the idea that "everyday, in every way, things are getting better." But at the end of the 20th century, we have come to be less smug about the past, and less confident of our own abilities. Perhaps the primal experience was the demolition of New York's Pennsylvania Station, a glory of American architecture, to make room for a mediocre and insulting travesty.

Admittedly, St. Vibiana is not Pennsylvania Station. It remains to be seen whether or not the chosen architect, like Bramante, makes the demolition a cause for something splendid. But there is ample precedent for its replacement--nearly 2,000 years of church history.*

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