It is either the most adventurous example of ecclesiastical architecture in the Serchio valley or, conversely, one of its ugliest. Built in that brutalist beton bruit Corbusier-inspired style familiar to many of us in the South Bank centre of London (In particular the Hayward gallery) Fornaci di Barga’s parish church can arouse the most opposed views. One thing is certain, however, one cannot remain indifferent to it.
All those conventions of church architecture which have held fast for centuries are here utterly overturned or rather transmogrified: the nave, the aisles, and the steeple are all there but one has often to look rather hard to recognise them.
Sometimes the transformed features have a certain creativeness. At other times they produce utter bathos. The font, for example, looks like some mini-Jacuzzi-style bath in a luxury pent-house suite and I almost mistook the entrance water stoup for a large ashtray.
And as for the confessionals.. do they really have to look like super-loos?
The cupola over the high altar has been cubistized to an absurd degree and, frankly, must be a tremendous heat-loser. No amount of proposed fresco painting could ever hope to alleviate its oppressive prison-like gloom.
The fact is that although “Corbu” is generally still assumed to be a major figure in architectural history he is very easy to imitate in a less-than-brilliant way and his pronouncements (e.g. “a house is a machine for living”) have spawned a scandalous number of third rate mock-ups. Compare, for example, the pioneering unité d’habitation at Marseilles with the Roehampton estate in London.
Certainly Fornaci’s church is nowhere near the primitive beauty of that master’s pilgrimage church at Ronchamp. Is this church then just a “machine for believing”? (As if there could be any juxtaposition of Faith with psycho-mechanistic processes…)
We generally know where to look for steps, or even entrances and exits, in a church but here they crop up in the most unsuspected places: round a corner, behind a pillar. One could easily trip up (like I did…) or fail to trace the entrance. (Yesterday was the first time I found it after several years…)
I felt the slight sloping of the church floor towards the high altar was rather disconcerting. I’d never come across this feature in any other modern church and couldn’t quite see the point of it – it certainly didn’t improve the sight-lines towards the centre of attraction and gave me a feel rather of walking around a gigantic barge placed in a marginally turbulent lagoon – an impression emphasized by the port-holes which act as windows on the entrance wall.
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier (October 6, 1887 – August 27, 1965), was an architect, designer, painter, urban planner, writer, and one of the pioneers of what is now called modern architecture.
Le Corbusier explicitly used the golden ratio in his Modulor system for the scale of architectural proportion. He saw this system as a continuation of the long tradition of Vitruvius, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, the work of Leon Battista Alberti, and others who used the proportions of the human body to improve the appearance and function of architecture. In addition to the golden ratio, Le Corbusier based the system on human measurements, Fibonacci numbers, and the double unit.
He took Leonardo’s suggestion of the golden ratio in human proportions to an extreme: he sectioned his model human body’s height at the navel with the two sections in golden ratio, then subdivided those sections in golden ratio at the knees and throat; he used these golden ratio proportions in the Modulor system.
Le Corbusier placed systems of harmony and proportion at the centre of his design philosophy, and his faith in the mathematical order of the universe was closely bound to the golden section and the Fibonacci series, which he described as “rhythms apparent to the eye and clear in their relations with one another. And these rhythms are at the very root of human activities. They resound in Man by an organic inevitability, the same fine inevitability which causes the tracing out of the Golden Section by children, old men, savages, and the learned.”
It was the christmas crib that got me to connect again with this church – tradition in the face of modernity. Surely no place for constructivist statues here.
The church’s exterior has a copper roof donated by the local Metal works that would do credit to any late sixties English university campus and the campanile would not look out of place as a flue chimney to a modern chemical processing plant.
The church, however, does score over individual works of art. The stained glass is quite spectacular and there are some worthy paintings and sculpture. The entrance doors, too, are quite impressive.
I would be very interested in knowing what the original reaction to Fornaci di Barga’s church was when it was inaugurated back in last century’s seventies. Did the edifice promise a brave new world of faith? Did it present a “with-it” world to younger people? What did the older folk think about it?
One thing is certain, however: there would be no funds to build such a construction in these financially- restricted times and of insufficient faith too. The new church, which was built to accommodate Fornaci’s increasing population, has now a congregation which would easily fit again into the old and smaller church built in the nineteenth century and which is so much more familiar and user-friendly. Many of us might agree that this is a good thing…
Article by Francis Pettitt , more on his wonderfully informative blog here