Monday, December 21, 2009

Of Church Ruins And Abandoned Malls

Our county has lost another of its historic churches — Whitby's All Saints' Anglican — likely to arson. Speaking from experience it is quite dispiriting to watch a gorgeous old church go up in flames. Equally dispiriting, I find, is the sort of pulpit-pounding that occurs in its wake: “If only people stopped/started believing in God, the world would be a better place.” The usual comments can be read here.

Turning, for the moment, from disputing the merits and evils of religion, here is a gallery of abandoned shopping malls and outlet stores. The photos were taken by Brian Ulrich.

Paul Bowman
linked to the pictures, without comment; Boing-Boing linked as well, but saw fit to include this snippet from TMN's interview with Ulrich: “How can an economy sustain a lifestyle based on exponential growth and the leisure and wealth to support it? It’s not rocket science to expect these kind of illusions to fail.”

Perhaps my gaze hasn't turned so far after all.

What surprises me about the photos is their inability to provoke emotion in me. Much of my adolescence and adult life has been spent inside malls; I dream quite regularly of dimly lit corridors and forgotten cul-de-sacs, where I find all the weird stores. Then there is the business of being a close witness to the closing of an old established bookstore — another frequent dream motif. Yet for all the potential power within these photos, I find them little more compelling than I would shots of trash in the ditch.

I believe that the current strain of North American church architecture has more in common with the shopping mall than it does with previously established religious aesthetics. A photo like the above gives us a very good idea of what the local mega-church will probably look like within 30 years or so. If nothing else, you have to hand it to the religious architects of old for giving us buildings that looked beautiful, even in ruination.

Now, when I give the mega-church buildings a life expectancy of 30 years, I'm being generous. I say this not because I think Christianity is in danger of dying out, but because I believe the last fifty years of public architecture will shortly be untenable, financially. Consider the cost of heating these structures. Now consider the fact that Saudi Arabia is investing in offshore drilling. Now reconsider what the monthly energy bill is likely to come to when OPEC finally slows its exports out of necessity.

But even if I and all my peak-oil nut-job buddies are wrong wrong DEAD wrong, I'd still argue the reasonable approach to building a church ought to be, “This building is good for 25 years. And then it's coming down.” If you are a church goer wondering at my folly, I urge you to pick up your yellow pages. Now find the church segment and run your finger down the list. How many of those congregations have been vibrant for as long as 40 years? If yours is one of them, ask yourself how you're going to beat the odds of a schism for another 40?

Take another look at that picture, if you like.

Another ruin that looms in my dreams is the St. Boniface Cathedral of Winnipeg. When my mother toured the grounds in the '70s, she struck up a conversation with a nun, and said what a shame the fire had been. The nun nodded silently. After a bit of a pause, the sister said, “But that was really a very expensive building to maintain.”

I've thought a lot about that exchange, especially as I've revisited the ruins. St. Boniface is a go-to destination for tourists and residents alike. It hosts weddings, memorials, concerts and performances of Shakespeare. I would argue that people interact with the ruins more frequently and with greater vibrancy than they would with the structure, were it still standing.

If that is the best fate of our most cherished buildings, perhaps it is time for another sea-change in North American church architecture. Perhaps now is the time for forward-thinking congregations and their architects to ask (1) what would a church with a small footprint and the capacity for easy dismantlement look like? And (2) how can we make our building as publicly inviting as a ruin — right now, before the fire?


DarkoV said...

Look, I have conflicted feelings about religion and have for a while, but I simply do not understand the mindset of the criminals who torch a church, specifically those churches that do not look like shopping malls. Yeah, yeah, they may be ticked off, for whatever legit or non-legit reason at the church, but to set fire to an older structure like that? Well, my tendency is to think of punishment in its most primitive and painful way.....
It's not a building that is being burned down, it's a community's history and, in a lot of cases, sole thread of continuity through a community's life.
Destroying an older church especially gets me riled up. I think on all of the people that had to have been involved in its building and in its communal use over the years and...

When you wrote about the arson in your hometown a few years back, I was livid. I had no sympathy at all for the idiots who did it. This type of crime is against a community of people, not against an amalgamation of mortar and bricks.

Su said...

Destroying history is a tragedy. I hate it. Having said that, now can we "dispute the merits and evils of religion?" LOL

Whisky Prajer said...

DV - I hope I don't sound like I'm sympathizing with these arsonists. It infuriates me, too, and I think anyone setting fire to someone else's place of worship is committing a crime that is only a half-step removed from preying on the weak. I suppose I was in a "crisis = opportunity" frame of mind when I composed this, but I may have spoken too quickly.

Su - no such disputation happening on this blog, I'm afraid. I'll let more determined idealists than myself hammer it out betwixt 'n' between 'em!

paul bowman said...

Quite a turn your thoughts took.

Musing now on how vulnerable to natural disaster (not to mention human disaster — wars, protestantism) were the medieval & renaissance originals, our 19th- & 20th-cent. gothic-&c.-revivalists' models. Interesting, too, to think of how dumbfoundingly extravagant those originals very often were, in terms of cost imposed on their communities — cathedrals, especially, built in timespans of centuries, and rebuilt as necessary. ('Your St. Boniface an expensive problem?' — imagine some time-traveling 15th-century bishop — 'You have no idea!') Yet they could be utilitarian in ways we don't have much connection with anymore.

I hardly ever have dreams where anything hangs together enough to be remembered clearly. Certainly not recognizable buildings & sensation of places, recurringly. — A little envious.

Whisky Prajer said...

Hm. Our cultural values have certainly shifted with the times -- often quite appropriately, I think. But then I'm from that worship-in-a-barn protestant sect.

paul bowman said...

Values, change — hmm. One hm on another, eh. It's the heavier stream of values self-consciousness, seeming thicker, more turbid under the surface of change, with every generation of the modern (whatever it is, whatever the starting point), that bugs me. All the time. I wonder about your word appropriately, this dream of propriety, when we start talking values. The mason-built churches & their altars & statues & trappings, massive, lofty, cosmic-worldly, in their own place said something between heaven & earth about propriety, belonging, that we fumble around for lack of a way of saying, even when we stand inside those same buildings today. I'm from the barn-meeting sects too. Yet the way of worship handed down has given me little enough for rest.

I'm surprised sometimes how much my thoughts these days return to, are indebted to you for this bit: "if you’re going to be a Christian, reduce it to its core principles and go Mennonite, or Quaker. Or embrace the contradictions — all of 'em — and go Catholic." I don't know that I'd ever put it that way, don't know that I'll ever exactly agree. But it does stick.

For me, strangely, the Son of God taking flesh, born of a virgin, suffering, dying, rising, reigning even, all is terrible reality — more terrible, more real! — in the stream of change. Can't account for that very well. It is strange as it is self-conscious.

Whisky Prajer said...

As you revisit my words, it sounds to me like I was swinging a wobbly version of Ockham's razor. These days I keep running into guys who are thoughtless imitators of this guy. I'll admit these are times when I'd rather pick and choose which contradictions I embrace. If nothing else, it wouldn't hurt to take a trip to Central America and hang with the sisters and brothers out there, if only to see how some contradictions play themselves out in other cultures.

I'm visiting my father's church at the moment. The woman who preached yesterday was almost eight months pregnant. Her exploration of the first two chapters of Matthew certainly put me in mind of your final observation, even as I marveled over the changes that had occurred in this (very) old congregation to allow for a woman to preach on a Holiday Sunday. More than a few "hms" of my own were uttered.