[June 21 2017]
Why photograph Milan’s contemporary churches? It’s a story of a unique architectural ensemble.
“The building art is always a special execution of spiritual decisions.” — Mies van der Rohe
What is a church like today? American architect Peter Eisenman posed just this question in his design report presented upon invitation to the International Architecture Competition for the Church of 2000. But the question one should ask, as he himself admitted, is different. What is architecture like today? Speaking of religious buildings entails going beyond the spiritual value of the work. And this holds particularly true in the archdiocese of Milan, the sole commissioning party, unique not only due to its size (encompassing more than 1100 parishes, it is one of the largest dioceses in the world) but also to its liturgy, which is Ambrosian, different from the commonly adopted Roman rite.
The churches portrayed in this project, built since the 1950s, tell a significant part of the history of Milan and its outlying areas. They tell everything from the burgeoning population after World War II up to the Catholic Church’s new requirements for renewal and dialogue with contemporary times, expressed by the Second Vatican Council. Yet there is much more. This unprecedented itinerary brings out a special time in architecture. A series of well-known designers, including Gio Ponti and Cino Zucchi, or even unknown designers, are anxious to experiment with new formal languages and measure themselves up to the complexity of a building whose function is declaredly representative and must respond to specific codes and values, in aesthetic, technical, and semantic and liturgical terms. The buildings selected are striking due to the variety of the solutions expressed. The materials, the light, the compositional geometry and the colours all hinge around an unvarying cannon. If there is any common element to be found in these spaces — sacred and inhabitable alike, physical and spiritual alike and therefore finite and infinite alike — it is subtraction, understood as the ability to condense.
From the centre of Milan to Varese, through the various parish churches in Milan’s archdiocese, the anti-rhetorical work of photographer Stefan Giftthaler, curated by the Anticàmera agency, aims to generate a mapping of the territory that brings to mind a re-appropriation. It is an analysis that rediscovers much loved and much hated architecture, never trivial but often undervalued. As integral parts of neighbourhoods and small villages, the churches chosen stand as points of reference in the everyday lives of their communities. Whether they are lay or believers it hardly matters. Because Milan, like Proust’s Combray in In Search of Lost Time, “was no more than a church epitomising the town, representing it, speaking of it and for it to the horizon”.
Photo Stefan Giftthaler and Text Annalisa Rosso