BRICK BY BRICK
SOME DIFFERENT STRUCTURES OF WORSHIP
March 1, 2021
Wherever our beliefs take us—in this case, from the Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal in Montreal to 1980s Polish Super Churches.
About a year ago, just before COVID-19 hit for real in North America, I made the trip to Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture to see an exhibition of travel photographs by US artist Gordon Matta-Clark. Inspired by Matta-Clark’s eye for atypical constructions, I decided to wander through Montreal to take some pictures myself, with particular attention to peculiar or eccentric buildings. What many would consider the city’s chief architectural feature, the Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal, certainly qualifies as an oddity. One of the largest Roman Catholic churches in the world, it is located at the top of Mont-Royal and can be seen from most parts of the city. I had never visited it before.
One might feel tempted to call the Oratoire as close to heaven as one can get in Canada, at least without an elevator (besides, one would be hard pressed to call Toronto’s CN Tower divine). Massive stairs lead up to the church. For those who wish to continue to climb even closer to divinity, one can take the steep and derelict staircase up into the cathedral’s dome. The message is clear: one must make an effort to get close to God. I would have never connected the expression “no pain, no gain” to a church visit, but there you are: Christianity is historically pretty good at pounding people into submission. When you finally reach the top, a rather surreal and remarkable sight comes into view, namely vast wooden racks holding hundreds upon hundreds of crutches, walkers, and canes left behind by those who climbed up the mountain to visit the church and then left their gear behind, miraculously no longer in need of walking aids.
Saint-Joseph Oratory at dusk, Montréal. Photograph by Kurian Perayil, public domain, commons.wikimedia.org
But the Oratoire is a remarkable building for plenty of other reasons. Besides its unique location atop the city’s highest mountain, there is its sheer size. It can hold more than ten thousand worshipers, and is more than 100 meters long, 60 meters wide, and 130 meters high—the same height as Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and taller than the city building code even allows, but who wants to argue with God? And the dome’s diameter is only three meters smaller than that of Saint Peter’s. Construction began in 1914, and the church was finally completed in its current state in 1967. The famous dome was built between 1937 and 1941.
Then there is the eclectic design. The structure features extensive use of Canadian granite and copper. On the outside, we are welcomed by an Italian Renaissance Revival style, then as soon as we enter, we fast-forward about four hundred years, suddenly enjoying one of the finest expressions of Art Deco in North America.
I was in utter reverence of the church, its history, its style, its location. It’s so extraordinary and strange that no one would believe it if it wasn’t actually there for us to visit, should we happen to be in Montreal.
After spending an hour in and around the church, I climbed down the long stairs and reentered the profanity of the real world. What other contemporary sacred architecture can have such an effect? Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota—designed by Marcel Breuer in 1961, and one of the most innovative church designs of the twentieth century—is a likely candidate. It’s a large complex with multiple buildings that includes dorms, living quarters for the monks, classrooms, various lecture facilities, a gym, and a library. The church in particular is astounding, made entirely of cast-in place concrete and a real departure in layout from the typical cross-shaped churches built during the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. Its dramatic modernism might help explain why we do not have a dominant style of church architecture today—or, rather, why experimentation is itself now the prevailing style. Over the last sixty or so years, new churches have been designed according to Postmodern, midcentury modern, Futurist, Brutalist, Minimalist, and whatever other sensibility you might imagine.
As an atheist who is interested in the history of religions, the architecture of mosques, synagogues, churches, temples—any and all houses of reverence—is of great interest to me. How does one construct a physical space in which people imagine themselves to be in the presence of God? In previous centuries, grandiosity, authoritative designs, and weighty materials were the way to go, but how do contemporary architects go about imagining suitable spaces for spirituality and manifestation?
Church of the Holy Spirit in Wrocław. By Aw58 (own work), CC BY-SA 4.0, commons.wikimedia.org
One incongruous group of recently built and designed churches (forty years ago, to be precise) are the so-called Polish Super Churches. It is hard to believe that, with Soviet approval, Poland would rise to the top ranking among church-building nations. But indeed, in the decade between 1979 and 1989, more than one thousand churches were built in Poland, a Communist country with a supposedly atheist population, which earns it the record for most churches in a single country—exceeding even Italy, if you can believe that. Most of the designs look straight out of Fritz Lang’s silent cinematic masterpiece Metropolis (1927). They are an unruly mix of Expressionistic Futurist Gothic Brutalism (if one had to give it a name).
When I had the chance to see some of these churches myself in the mid-1990s, I felt something incredibly dystopic about them. Many had not aged well and were in terrible disrepair. Still, even in their former perfect condition, they must have had a sinister feel, which is not surprising given the extraordinary circumstances under which they were built. Any Polish person you ask will give you precisely three reasons for this tidal wave of church construction. First, a person of Polish ethnicity became the head of the Catholic Church in 1978, namely Pope John Paul II. Second, there was the rise of Solidarnosc (Solidarity), which began as a trade union in 1980 and grew into a massive oppositional movement over the decade that followed. The churches served as Solidarnosc’s sanctuaries, where members could meet undisturbed by local authorities. Last, Poland is traditionally one of the most devoted Roman Catholic nations in the world, and its citizens were not going to give up their religion simply because the Communist government promoted an absence of belief in deities.
Sanctuary of Divine Mercy in Kalisz. By Qkiel (own work), CC BY-SA 4.0, commons.wikimedia.org
At the heart of this is an irony characteristic of many former Warsaw Pact countries and their bloated yet controlling bureaucracies: Poland’s citizens were building churches as an act of protest, and the government allowed the construction because in their mind it would stop people from protesting in the streets. In a Kafkaesque twist, both the citizens and the apparatchiks believed they’d won the battle and were getting what they wanted.
Yet how to explain the otherworldly designs? In the 1970s and 1980s, Poland had only one architectural magazine, the legendary Architektura, which before 1980 only ran one article concerned with sacred architecture. The building it discussed was the iconic Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut, a Roman Catholic chapel in Ronchamp, France, designed by Le Corbusier in 1955. It is considered one of Le Corbusier’s most revolutionary designs, a masterpiece, regularly called the very first Postmodern building. Thus, many Polish church architects in the 1980s looked to Postmodernism for inspiration, in particular Arata Isozaki and his Oita Medical Hall in Japan (1959–60), often described as New Brutalism or Metabolist architecture and also featured in Architektura. It is clear that Oita’s Medical Hall and Le Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut massively inspired the 1980s Polish Super Churches’ architecture.
Church of Saint Lawrence in Wroclaw. By Ludwik Rey (own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, commons.wikimedia.org
Yet one other crucial ingredient is required to explain the extraordinary Polish churches: the building material. Even though Polish architects had a good knowledge of Western avant-garde architecture, by orders of the Soviet Union, the Polish government dramatically restricted access to building products or machines necessary to create elaborate designs, which resulted in many churches being made of bricks, or else cheap concrete (which began deteriorating almost instantly). Their monumentality was achieved with such straightforward and minimal means that they convey a sobriety that contrasts strangely with their outlandish designs.
It is a long way from the phony yet divine Renaissance and Art Deco splendor of the Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal to the spectacular yet ramshackle 1980s Polish Super Churches. Yet both were built for people to come together, pray, confess, christen their children, get married, and say goodbye to loved ones. Whoever enters them comes closer to some form of enlightenment, whether secular and political, cultural and intellectual, or perhaps indeed heavenly.
Noah Tremblay is a sportswriter with an interest in the sociology of architecture and the history of religion. He is based in Trois-Rivières, Québec, Canada.
Cover photo courtesy of: Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary Queen of Poland. By Tonhar (own work), CC BY 3.0, commons.wikimedia.org