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Noah’s Ark of the Anthropocene? How the Vatican plans to avert ecological catastrophe

Art historian and critic Uliana Dobrova looks at how Pope Francis I has come to be seen as the “eco-Pope.”

Chapel by Norman Foster. Photo: Timur Zolotoev

The 58th edition of the Venice Art Biennale opened on May 8th. This year’s exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times, under the curatorship of Ralph Rugoff, brought forth a host of apocalyptic visions. (This was especially true of the projects that looked out from the depths of past ages, such as the widely panned Russian pavilion). The winner of the Golden Lion, the Lithuanian Pavilion, featured an opera in the spirit of A Feast in Time of Plague. Holiday-makers, trapped inside the four walls of a resort, relaxed in the sand, sang, and rubbed sunscreen on themselves under an imaginary sun. Almost all of the national projects touched on the approaching climate catastrophe. Art historian and critic Uliana Dobrova explains how the Vatican’s pavilion at last year’s architecture biennale emerged as a counterweight to the gloom, with the Catholic Church casting itself as a “Noah's Ark” setting off into the Anthropocene.

For decades, the Catholic Church has occupied a position akin to that of the UN, fulfilling diplomatic, peacekeeping, and humanitarian functions around the world. Papal encyclicals serve as the Church's guiding policy documents. In 2015, Pope Francis I wrote and presented his second encyclical, Laudato Si’, which urged the defense of the environment amidst inevitable and irreversible changes to the earth’s ecology.

The Pope identified anthropocentrism as one of humanity’s main problems. Anthropocentrism, as it happens, is one of the main principles of classical art and, especially, of classical architecture. The ideal building is a building where space and volume correspond with and are derived from the canon of the human body. Fragments of robust doric temples and graceful ionic columns—this is the precious debris of ancient civilization, which saw in man the measure of all things.

Over the millennia, the waste created for and by humans has morphed and become more multifaceted and multitudinous, as has the principle of anthropocentrism itself. By the beginning of this millennium, that which had been one of the conditions of our survival had become a threat to our existence.

 

THE ANTHROPOCENE: AT ACADEMIC SUMMITS, AND IN THE VATICAN

On October 6, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented a special report about the consequences of global warming and the possible increase of average global temperatures by more than 1.5ºC.

The report leaves no doubt about humanity’s crucial role in the extinction of species, the destruction of ocean ecosystems, and the melting of ice caps. In the context of this rapidly approaching ecological catastrophe, the term Anthropocene has entered common usage, referring to the geological epoch where humans have become an irreversible force on the planet, the composition of the earth’s core, and its atmosphere.

The Anthropocene was first described in the 1980s, around the same time as the first attempts at slowing the process of global warming. However, the concept has come to mean more than simply ecological changes. With the arrival of this new era, humanity faces unexpected challenges, such as the problem of information ecology, or migration into virtual reality. The adaptation of the Anthropocene as the accepted definition of this new era carries the same weight in the academic community as the Papal encyclical does amongst believers—and brings about immediate political measures.

 

THE PAPACY CALLS YOU TO CLEAN RIVERS AND FORESTS

In his encyclical, Francis I sets a goal for the Catholic Church and its followers, one comparable in its ambition to space travel: to impress upon the world the necessity to take urgent steps to save the planet from the pollution of the environment. Fittingly, it is Francis I (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) who has become the “eco-Pope”; his papal name borrows from Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the order of Friars Minor, bard of nature, and friend to all animals.

Francis’ ecological invocation, a sweeping text that serves as both lecture and sermon, nonetheless contains rather concrete instructions for action. In his 58th point, the pontiff notes: “In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation.”

Gianfranco Ravasi

The point about beautiful buildings deserves special attention. For Francis I, architecture can be an example of positive human influence on the environment. Though they do not resolve global problems, such harmonious constructions can reaffirm that man was created to love, to be generous and caring. Noah, Francis I reminds us, was saved from the flood because he was good. From this point of view, the Catholic Church’s logic is crystal clear.

At the forefront of the church’s battle against irresponsible anthropocentrism and its dialogue with contemporary architecture stands one of the Pope’s closest cardinals, the head of the Papal Council of Culture, Gianfranco Ravasi. He was the first to engage with the Venice Art Biennale and opened the first Vatican pavilion at the Arsenale in 2013. As curator Francesco Dal Co recalled, it did not take long to persuade the cardinal to build an entire park of futuristic chapels on San Giorgio Maggiore, and to invite the world’s best contemporary architects to build under the auspices of the Holy See for the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Chapel in Skogskyrkogården Source: Holger Ellgaard / commons.wikimedia.org

The inspiration for the Vatican’s project was Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund’s chapel constructed in 1920 in the forest-cemetery of Skogskyrkogården. Taking the canonical building in the history of contemporary sacred architecture head on was a cunning curatorial choice. Asplund stood not only at the origins of Scandinavian design, with its monochrome minimalism and poetry of solid forms, but at the origins of modernism itself. As the organizers emphasized, Asplund’s approach to the natural environment aligns with the spirit of the papal encyclical Laudato Si’.

 

THE RELIGION OF THE FUTURE WILL WORSHIP NATURE

Striving for harmony with the environment, the chapels at the Vatican's pavilion are made largely from natural materials. Terunobu Fujimori built a chapel-cabin with exposed beams; Norman Foster crafted a tent for the meditation of wooden latticework; Souto de Moura assembled a megalithic tomb out of blocs of local stone. The project is marked by an internationalism characteristic for Christianity: Fujimori is Japanese, Forster is British, de Moura is Portuguese; Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats hail from Barcelona, Smiljan Radic from Chile by way of Serbia, Javier Corvalán Espínola from Paraguay, Francesco Cellini from Rome, Carla Juaçaba from Brazil, Sean Godsell from Australia, and Andrew Berman from the USA. However, the works are not defined by the bounds of national identity, and, by their own admission, most of the participants are non-believers.

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Chapel by Teronobu Fujimori. Photo: Timur Zolotoev

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Chapel by Javier Corvalan. Photo: Timur Zolotoev

The chapels have been left open to anyone wishing to pray, regardless of confession or descent. Some of the buildings have no walls or ceilings: what is that if not a symbol of the ecumenical moods inside the Vatican? Their plain geometric forms both harken back to the simple life of the paleochristian era, and refer to the utopian architecture of modern masters.

The chapels emerge as equally futuristic and archaic constructions. In this way, the project plays with the idea of a new hybrid Catholicism: a religion of the future, full of Druid and Shinto-esque veneration of nature; or perhaps a religion preparing to settle new planets as yet unspoilt by human civilization. Despite the Old Testament promise made by God to Noah that the Great Flood will never repeat, the Catholic Church is preparing for that possibility in the most unusual way, recruiting Pritzker Prize winners to help build its symbolic ark for the Venice Biennale.

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