Churches: Great Architecture or Symbols of Exploitation?


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Notre Dame de Paris
Photo by Chris Card Fuller
Yesterday we chatted with an English and a Mexican visitor in France. (Sheila and Sylvia). Sheila admitted that she wasn’t too keen on visiting cathedrals – she and her friend Sylvie were visiting Rouen. When I asked about the cathedral, she said they had visited the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake – and the new church built in her honor. As for the cathedral of Rouen, she said that she had a hard time with cathedrals – she preferred the simple beauty of the monasteries (like Bec Hellouin in Brionne). All the ornate decor of the larger churches just reminds her that the churches were built on the backs of the poor.
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Bec Hellouin near Brionne, Eure
Photo by Chris Card Fuller ©2007

This comment reminded me of a French student’s comment (that has aways stuck in my memory) Why not make a swimming pool out of Notre Dame? If this gives you a sudden shock (as it did for me), it’s simply a good reminder that not everyone reacts to monuments in the same way. Some of us see beauty or at the very least a concrete reminder of human endeavors, examples of the greatness that can be achieved out of faith . . .others see a great expense of human effort spent on vanity, whether it be personal vanity or the vanity of institutions.
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Gargoyle on Notre Dame de Paris
Photo by Chris Card Fuller ©2007

As you can imagine, even though this may not be my opinion, I think it’s worth discussion and worth knowing that there’s more than one way to think about architecture, especially the icons of architecture such as the gothic cathedrals of Europe.
Personally one of my very favorite locales has been the Alhambra in Granada – maybe because of the purity of light on geometric design.
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Arc Boutant, Notre Dame de Paris
Photo by Chris Card Fuller ©2007

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Light is what guided the first Gothic architects. Maybe along the way, future generations were sidetracked. It never hurts to talk about the motivation for great buildings. What will be next for Paris after La Grande Arche and Musee du Quai Branly? Does Nicolas Sarkozy have something in mind? If so, I hope it will include a place for Paris’s homeless!
(In the past, didn’t the homeless find lodging in Notre Dame?) In case you haven’t read in recent newspaper reports, some of Paris’s best neighborhoods will now have low-income apartments opening up at some very nice addresses. The government is relooking at its list of real estate holdings and will start listing these choice addresses as low income housing! How is that for egalitarianisme at its best? (Make no mistakes – a garret in the 16th is not to be confused with 100 sq. meters in the 13th!) Good addresses can be deceiving.
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Musee du Quai Branly
Photo by Chris Card Fuller ©2007

A final note on great architecture and exploitation – if you drew up a list of all the greatest architectural achievements in history – including the wonders of the world – undoubtedly you would find a great exploitation of human labor for each example. Others would argue that cathedrals were built by the faithful . . . I’m sure there’s enough here to merit a serious study of how monuments are constructed and to what extent over the ages the participation has been voluntary and beneficial. Maybe the next great construction for the world should be a labor of love – wouldn’t it be a coup for France – if it should be in Paris? (There are some rumors going around that the Palais de Tuileries may be reconstructed. This would in effect complete the full circle of the Louvre – with IM Pei’s pyramid becoming a focal point). So, what if the Palais was constructed by volunteers that would be guaranteed free lodging in the finished building? Just a thought.