The John Paul II Cultural Center, Washington, DC

Will the Medium Be the Message?

by Catesby Leigh, appearing in Volume 1

Strictly speaking, the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, which soon will be under construction in the nation’s capital, does not qualify as sacred architecture. It is conceived, first and foremost, as a high-tech museum of the Catholic faith which will educate and inspire Catholic and non-Catholic visitors alike. It also will serve as a research institute accommodating a dozen scholars from around the world. Both museum and institute will be housed in a 100,000-square-foot building designed by a team of architects from the Washington office of Leo A. Daly, under the direction of Richard Clarke.

The John Paul II Cultural Center Foundation, whose headquarters are in Detroit, is financing the $51.8 million project through private donations. The foundations president is Adam Cardinal Maida, the archbishop of Detroit, whose father immigrated to the United States from Poland. The site for the cultural center is a wooded, 12-acre lot located next to the campus of the Catholic University of America and close to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Proximity to the shrine, a highly popular tourist destination, is one of the principal advantages of the cultural center’s location. Construction is expected to be completed in the latter part of 2000.

When Cardinal Maida first got the idea for the cultural center a decade ago, he was thinking in terms of an institution similar to our presidential libraries. But his original idea has undergone considerable development. Thus the museum’s permanent exhibition has been designed by Edwin Schlossberg Incorporated of New York City as a multimedia vision of the Church’s past, present, and future and of how they relate to the history of the world, and to modern scientific interpretations of the cosmos. This exhibition is intended to emphasize basic themes or ideals such as the unity of Christians and the unity of the world; Pope John Paul II’s prophetic humanism; human dignity; the Church as defender of human rights; and John Paul II as a pope of the [Second Vatican] Council, a pope for the ages. The cultural center also will offer temporary exhibits drawing mainly on the Vatican’s collections, along with conveniences such as gift shops, a café, and even an Earth Play Area for children seven and under.

The cultural center may not qualify under the heading of sacred architecture, but it is hardly a secular institution. It is intended to propagate the faith, while perpetuating the incumbent pontiff’s legacy. And its design raises interesting questions about the way in which the sponsoring foundation is seeking to carry out this mission. The cathedrals of the Middle Ages told a story in stained glass, Cardinal Maida was quoted as saying in the Washington Times last year. This museum will tell a story with technology and scholarship. Modernist design is also part of the formula.

The cultural center will be set well back in its lot, facing a generous expanse of greensward to the east. Perched on a terrace of black-and-white Polish granite, the building will be an architectural synthesis, in limestone and glass, of a number of familiar themes from the oeuvre of the pioneer French modernist Le Corbusier.

Towards its north end, a large cylindrical volume projects from the model’s main rectilinear mass and serves as an entrance rotunda. On the terrace, a reflecting pool runs along the length of this mass, and is interrupted near its southern end by a chapel wing which juts out from the building at a perpendicular angle. The chapel itself is a little box housed within an odd sculptural arrangement consisting of two perpendicular wall-planes which read, in plan, as an asymmetrical cross. Rectilinear openings are punched out of these planes, however, and it is very unlikely that many visitors will appreciate this distorted reference to the principal symbol of Christianity, whose formal inspiration would appear to lie in the supremely abstract realm of constructivist art.

The copper-sheathed chevron form suspended over the main building mass, for its part, has been likened to angel’s wings. But the roof-metaphor, too, is compromised, if not negated, by the chevron’s asymmetrical configuration. The roof rests on a row of large, vertical, tapering reinforced-concrete beams which rise through the building from its foundation. Secondary support is provided by metal struts on the buildings east side. At the north end of the building, the roof cuts an ugly V-shaped indentation into a large limestone-sheathed service block, housing stairs, elevators, bathrooms, and mechanical functions, which receives distinct articulation in the design. At the chapel end, in turn, the roof is pierced by a cross.

On the other side of the cultural center from the entrance cylinder, a secondary, western façade faces a granite terrace which serves as a disembarkation point for bus passengers, and, beyond the terrace, a parking lot. This elevation is dominated by a large expanse of curtain wall of sand-blasted glass. But on this side of the building, a couple of expressionistic gestures, in the form of two walls which protrude from the main building mass, offer some contrast with the dominant rationalist geometries.

One of these walls runs alongside the north end of the building at an oblique angle. It boasts the sort of disordered, seemingly random fenestration Le Corbusier employed at his pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp, France scattered glazed slot-openings and little square holes rather than what one would normally think of as windows. This massive wall rises for two of the buildings three stories, and encloses the atrium of a lobby situated below grade as well as an exit. Pierced by another wall-plane jutting straight out from the building, it bends back toward a sunken court as a roofless segment, sloping inward on its inner side in a manner that recalls the Ronchamp chapel’s interior. It is a baffling gesture. On the other side of the glass curtain-wall, another irregular wall protrudes less boldly from the building mass, this one undulating in plan and tapering off toward the building’s south end. Endowed with the same sort of picturesque, Ronchamp-style fenestration, this wall encloses the Papal and Polish Heritage Room on the main level, and, above, a gallery for temporary exhibits, as well as the library of the studies center, which occupies the building’s third floor. A narrow, glazed curtain wall extends between the undulating wall and a service block sheathed in corrugated copper panels, which anchors the cultural center’s south end.

In the chapel, too, the ribbon window running right under the ceiling, and the wall-openings below, with their deep, splayed reveals, take after Ronchamp. The pews are pushed off to one side of the nave, a conventionally asymmetrical Modernist arrangement.

Inside the cultural center, the designers have devoted particular attention to accommodating the circulation of large numbers of people who will respond to the options the museum offers in a variety of ways. They also have sought to impart a sense of spatial openness and transparency in the building through the painstaking manipulation of natural light. Visitors’ interest is to be stimulated not only through the latest in audio-visual and interactive technologies; but also through introducing novel, tactile experiences, such as the touching the positive bronze casts of hands of the pope and other Catholics from around the world. These will be arrayed along the railings of the circulation ramps as signs of peace.

The permanent exhibition will be installed on the building’s main and lower levels. Visitors will have the option of using the bar-coded cards in the small handbooks they will receive upon paying admission to obtain a particular theme to explore during their visit, as well as to access interactive displays. The spaces harboring this exhibition include, on the main level, a Gallery of Mary, which will offer artifacts and images of the Virgin as she is venerated by different cultures, along with a world family mural with life-size, black-and-white photographs of Catholics from around the world. The principal feature of this gallery will be six floor-to- ceiling, three-dimensional, audio-visual doorways with painted steel frameworks, each one devoted to a particular cult of Mary. On the lower level there will be a Gallery of Church and Papal History, a Gallery of Faith, a Gallery of Community, a Gallery of Wonder, and a Gallery of Imagination.

Visitors will be able to retrieve the material they have stored in the museums information system when they arrive at the Resolution Café, where tables will be equipped with monitors and card-swipes. They will also be able to obtain certificates computer print-outs of their activities at the cultural center and even purchase videos or CD-ROMs reproducing the inter-active displays which engaged their interest. Near the café, moreover, a group of monitors will give visitors a chance to inform themselves about opportunities for fuller participation in the Church, and cultural and charitable activities it supports, where they live.

A final exit experience on the main floor involves touching the positive cast of a human hand in order to hear the message Peace Be With You, and then walking through a light-beam projected down from the ceiling. When the beam is interrupted, the same phrase will be heard in a foreign language. A series of hands and light-beams and foreign tongues will be encountered in this space.

The cultural center’s decorative program has yet to be worked out in detail, and will depend largely on donations. An abundance of stained glass is anticipated for instance, on a large glazed expanse on the entry cylinder as well as numerous pieces of sculpture outside the building. A statue of the pope is to rise out of the reflecting pool near the main entrance. The artistic treatment of the stained glass and sculpture has yet to be determined and one is left to wonder how the decoration will mesh with the very abstract architecture. Will stained glass that tells a story beautifully fit in here? The landscape design, on the other hand, has been capably handled by Michael Vergason of Arlington, Virginia, in collaboration with the architects. Vergason has struck an appropriate balance between the formal arrangement of trees and shrubs along the main road and pedestrian path to the building, on the one hand, and a more romantic, informal approach elsewhere. Flower gardens will be planted near the building, and the café should offer a pleasant view. Our Corbusian machine will be ensconced in an inviting Eden.

The cultural center’s architectural design amounts to a thoroughly academic scheme produced by talented people who have managed the practical aspects of a very demanding program, with great intelligence. Ronchamp aside, Le Corbusier’s influence is evident in the combination of elementary geometric volumes on the east side of the building, which recalls the City of Refuge the Frenchman built in Paris for the Salvation Army during the Depression. The roof, in turn, evokes his Nestl Pavilion of 1928 as well as his Youth and Cultural Center at Firminy, which was designed three decades later. The Pope John Paul II Cultural Center model even boasts a typically Corbusian gutter spout shooting out of the roof’s valley at the north end. (It has been eliminated from the design.)

But in their effort to liven up the planar geometries of the City of Refuge by introducing the expressionism of Ronchamp, perhaps the most celebrated building of the post-war phase of Le Corbusier’s career, the architects have inevitably diluted the primitive ferocity of the latter in order to keep their design from dissolving into complete incoherence. The result, unfortunately, is not terribly convincing, and probably would elicit little more than a string of mumbled profanities from Le Corbusier himself.

So what are we to make of the formula, or general concept, behind the cultural center? Well, it confirms that McLuhan was right: the medium is indeed the message. To be sure, the messages imparted by the cultural center’s high-tech displays have been carefully adjusted to Church doctrine and the principles John Paul II has emphasized during his papacy. But is it just because I flunked the course that the concept for the exit experience inspires unpleasant memories of Psych 101 and the Skinner box? Or has the touchy-feely sensibility gotten a little out of hand here? And once the cultural center’s various electronic media are passé as they inevitably will be not long after it opens will anybody be interested in the messages? If not, the sponsoring foundation will find itself engaged in an interminable fund-raising campaign in support of technological rather than spiritual renewal.

And though some might regard it as the wave of the future so far as our museums are concerned, one might wonder whether all this electronic gadgetry amounts to a sort of instinctive by-product of, or compensation for, the reductive architectural character of the building. For here, too, the medium is the message. That is, modernist architecture’s esthetic poverty lies precisely in the dogma that the medium the mechanical facts of construction is architecture’s message. A dogma, by the way, which Michelangelo would rightly have regarded as hopelessly perverse. Next time the architects (or their clients) opt for an academic design, perhaps they should cast their net a little further afield than the last 70 years of architectural history, which, truth be told, have been distinctly inglorious.