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?