Posted in good design, good people, GR1s, GR21, GRD, the world around us by hemmant jha on August 18, 2009

The Dam of God. Part One.

St. Francis de Sales Parish Church, Muskegon, MI, USA. Marcel Breuer, Architect.

As an apparatus of worship, this is clearly a remarkable, remarkable structure. So remarkable, in fact, that I wonder how something like this was able to be built. As with any instrument that serves a purpose, there are usually many ways to work toward the same end result – using different paths and techniques, some simpler, some more complex, some direct and some not quite. For example, it is possible to take excellent pictures with many brands of cameras, but Leica, Hasselblad, Rollei and Pentax are all quite different from each other. Undeniably purposeful machines, each has a particular flavour, a unique methodology, even though the basic principles of photography remain the same – and I believe they impart that flavor, sometimes obvious, sometimes less so, to the images we make with them. 

Similarly, this work of architecture examined purely in terms of materials, construction technology or methodology is fascinating, and it is easy to see how it was built and why certain decisions were made. But what were the other invisible forces at work that had aligned perfectly for it to have been brought into existence in this particular way? There’s scant evidence of design by committee, of obvious cost-cutting measures, of steering by market forces, of branding by consultants. Even to this trained [and quite skillful, by some accounts] architect and designer it is at once awe inspiring and somewhat disorienting. It is designed and tuned for one purpose : as an instrument of worship to a higher power – it is a building that serves that function with confidence and with pride.

A plaque cast into the side of the building displays the year of origin – 1966. Yes, the 60s were a period of incredible growth and wonderful and daring innovation, of invention and reinvention – it was a time of exuberance, for taking chances, for doing new things. That only partially explains how this building came to be. Many of you are undoubtedly familiar with the documentary film : Concert of Wills – about the making of the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The documentary is unique because it focuses on the generally invisible [behind the scenes] processes involved in the creation of a significant work of architecture – I cannot imagine it took anything less than a concert of wills in this instance.

However modern the interpretation, this church retains enough aspects of traditional places of worship – yet is different enough from everything built before it, or since – enough that there must have been quite a bit of persuasive, perhaps divine, arm-twisting somewhere in the process. Similar in approach to the concrete hyperbolic paraboloid constructions of Felix Candela [Church of Our Lady of The Miraculous MedalChapel Lomas De Curenavaca] and Breuer’s own experiments with cast concrete, this building is easily in the same class as Kahn’s Salk Institute or his Yale Art Gallery and Ando’s [diminutive by comparison] Church of the Light

In looking through the images that accompany this article, you will see that there are not many right angles in the entire construction – laying waste to our collective years of experiencing space based on the modern and rigid 90 degree horizontal / vertical system. This awe-inspiring, overwhelming disorientation, this out-of-scale approach is very much in keeping with the classical tradition of places of religious worship. Perhaps the only way to be comfortable in a space like this is to close one’s eyes and find inner peace within?

And after a few minutes of being here, a sense of calm does replace the earlier feelings of awe and disorientation. The quiet, generally monochromatic interior, punctuated by shafts of light from various skylights, is quite a nice place to be. The amount of natural lighting is well proportioned to the space – all the accompanying photographs were shot without the aid of artificial light. 

The firmness of the concrete and its unforgiving nature is offset by the imprint of the natural material used for the formwork – the contribution of natural material clearly and undeniably on display. As opposed to the many structures that dot the area around it for miles that use stick construction – made mostly of wood disguised to look like something else, this one is the opposite. Made of concrete that looks like concrete, it is born of wood, and it shows.

It is at once austere and refined, grand and powerful, massive, dignified, broad-shouldered, comforting.

As part of this series, I will present the thoughts and experiences of the people who use this space, as well as the story of how this project was conceived and brought to completion. 

This is one of those instances where further wordy descriptions would do the building and the artist / architect a disservice – we will let the images speak for themselves. As always, thoughts and comments are welcome. 

[all BW images in this post shot on Ilford XP2 with Ricoh GR21 and GR1S cameras, color images with Ricoh GRD]

These are views of the exterior. This post accompanies 121.4 which also shows photographs of the exterior, and 121.2 / 121.3 with photographs of the interior.











4 Responses

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  1. 121.2 « thinkmore said, on August 20, 2009 at 11:23 am

    […] post accompanies 121.1 which shows photographs of the exterior. These are some views of the […]

  2. 123 « thinkmore said, on August 25, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    […] the other day, during the photo shoot at the Breuer church [interior, exterior], something happened that adds a bit more fuel to the film / digital debate. Since our cameras of […]

  3. 121.3 « thinkmore said, on September 4, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    […] post accompanies 121.1 which shows photographs of the exterior, and 121.2 with photographs of the […]

  4. 121.4 « thinkmore said, on September 10, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    […] post accompanies 121.1 which shows photographs of the exterior, and 121.2 / 121.3 with photographs of the […]

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