The Vatican's church architecture exhibit is underwhelming

The Church has been a patron of art and architecture from the time of Constantine. It has meditated on the importance of beauty and its role in worship from St Thomas Aquinas to Benedict XVI; Pope Francis has other priorities in his teachings. The Holy See now appears for the first time as an exhibitor at the 16th architecture Venice Biennale.

The Vatican’s contribution, dubbed Ten chapels, is of actual buildings and installations rather than drawings or models. The overall theme of the exhibition is “Freespace”, that is, the dialogue which architects hope their buildings will have with their surroundings. The chapels are built on the same island as Palladio’s serene basilica and cloister of San Giorgio Maggiore.

The appointed curator is an Italian, Professor Francesco Dal Co. Twelve figures, including several “starchitects”, were invited, and the result is the predictable fare of international architecture exhibitions. They have designed formal, abstract compositions profiting from the bosky setting. The architects are from Australia (Sean Godsell’s Relocatable chapel); Brazil; Britain; Chile (Smiljan Radic’s Roadside shrine); Japan (Ternubo Fujimori’s Cross chapel); Italy; Paraguay (Javier Corbalan’s Nomadic chapel); and the United States.

Foster+Partners’ Crosses morphed in Tensegrity (Britain), with the Italian furniture maker Tecno and Maeg, is a wooden strut and tensioned cloister. Three crosses appear in the structure. Carla Juacaba’s A bench and a cross (Brazil) is a minimalist steel structure. With one cross upright and one flat on the ground, a sort of rack supporting a single bench, it is an installation rather than a building.

Andrea Souto de Moura’s No, it is not a chapel (Portugal) is built of Vicenza sandstone, and there is a cube-like altar. The Vicenza reference is to Palladio, but rather than his elegant masonry courses, we have interlocking monolith slabs. Francesco Cellini’s Not a project, a reflection (Italy) is built in steel and ceramic with Panariagroup. It has the two interlocking rectangles enclosing an altar and an ambo, as the brief asked, but the latter’s scale and position are that of an Old Mass lectern. It would serve for a Catholic summer camp.

The most traditional is Prats and Flores’s Morning chapel (Spain), constructed by Saint-Gobian Italia, a wayside arched shrine with a flanking wall. It could house one priest and a server. Andrew D Berman’s modest chapel (New York), made of wood and polycarbonate, is the simplest and perhaps most recyclable.

The exhibitors were given as their model a Stockholm cemetery chapel from 1915 by the noted early 20th-century Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund. Recreated in full scale by Magnani and Pelzel (MAP) and clad in wooden shingles, it forms the Holy See’s pavilion, exhibiting Asplund’s drawings and models, rather than anything overtly religious.

Such a gloomy Nordic model hardly transposes to Venice. And it is the “greenfield” setting of a Venetian island which seems to have beguiled most critics of the Ten chapels. From the Great Exhibition of 1851 onwards, such exhibition buildings have been considered expendable, no matter how enchanting their setting.

There is talk of moving the chapels to earthquake zones, or to Poland. Others have said it would be far cheaper to remake them afresh elsewhere.

The exhibitors, like all architects, take themselves very seriously. Foster’s alone has a lightness of touch. Horace Walpole, that master of whimsy, also made a “chapel in the wood” at his villa retreat at Strawberry Hill. Many other 18th-century English milords peppered their parks with similar Gothic follies.

Walpole’s chapel (1772) was a serious essay in the Gothic Revival architecture, employing masons from Westminster Abbey. But its religiosity was tongue-in-cheek: contemporary cartoons showed nuns tricked by his jokes sinking down on their knees. By 1950 it had become a wayside shrine for the Vincentian teacher training college, the ancestor of today’s St Mary’s University. The buildings in Venice are unlikely to have such an afterlife.

Catholics are used to worshipping in the open, on pilgrimage and at shrines. Such sites stretch from the Irish Mass rock, the great pilgrimage churches of Bavaria, to Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, with its external altars and pulpit. To ignore these in favour of Asplund’s skogskapellet shows how deracinated Catholic culture has become.

The curator was an avowed non-believer, as were most of the exhibitors. What does this tell us about the culture of the Church under Pope Francis? Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has spent €400,000 (£350,000) on this exhibition. He has also supported the disquieting Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination blockbuster exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Dr Roderick O’Donnell is an architectural historian. The 16th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice runs until November 25

This article first appeared in the June 1st 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here