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Roadside Attractions: 3 Architectural Drives in Central Europe

Great buildings interact with their surroundings in unexpected, dramatic ways—from ancient to postmodern, architecture has refigured the European landscape again and again. On the following pages, Michael Gorra tours the Rococo churches of Bavaria and wonders if the frivolous-seeming structures can live up to the religious fervor they're meant to evoke. And Raul Barreneche devises itineraries in France and Switzerland highlighting the work of Le Corbusier and his present-day successors.

 

German Rococo

 

4 DAYS, 500 MILES
WÜRZBURG, BAMBERG, NÜRNBERG, LANDSHUT, MUNICH

In 1445, the story goes, a child appeared on a hillside near the German city of Bamberg. While the approach of a shepherd named Hermann made him vanish, he came back the following year, this time with 14 companions. They told Hermann that they wanted a chapel built on the very spot where the boy had first shown himself. Although this structure took a decade to complete, a pilgrimage to the place got going immediately. Three hundred years later, the prince-bishop of Würzburg and Bamberg decided to build a new chapel, and after some discussion the commission went to a former fireworks maker named Balthasar Neumann, a master of light-drenched grandeur and very possibly the greatest architect of his century.

Vierzehnheiligen, or "Fourteen Saints," would be the first stop on what was, lapsed Catholic though I am, a kind of pilgrimage of my own, a 500-mile tour through the high-camp splendors of Bavarian Rococo. Years before, I had found myself beguiled by Munich's Asamkirche, a tiny jewel box of a place that the Asam brothers, Egid Quirin and Cosmas Damian, had put up at their own expense in 1746 after a career of building other churches throughout southern Germany. I'd opened its doors with no expectations, and had felt my whole body shiver with serendipitous delight. The 19th-century French chef Carême boasted that architecture was but an inferior branch of confectionery, and no building I'd ever seen before had looked so showily spun and molded and baked: its interior resembled nothing so much as a tray of petits fours, with a praline sunburst over the altar and putti sculpted from mascarpone.

Ever since, I'd wanted to immerse myself in what could be the last great movement in European ecclesiastical architecture. The Asamkirche was but a taste, and had awakened a craving that the rest of Munich couldn't satisfy. The greatest Rococo churches were said to lie out in the countryside, objects of pilgrimage that you had to work to reach.

The paradox of the style, according to Yale scholar Karsten Harries, is that for all the bravura sophistication of their décor, such churches are quite literally provincial. For they grew out of the popular piety of an 18th-century peasant society—from country folk who found in the drama of the Rococo's overblown altars an intoxicating miracle of growth and life. Vierzehnheiligen was one of those country churches, and its surroundings are rural still. While I was visiting friends in Hamburg, in the red-brick sobriety of Germany's Protestant north, I had a few days to spare and seized them, hopping a fast train to Würzburg, an hour east of Frankfurt along the twisty river Main. There I picked up an Audi A3 rental and set off to the east for Vierzehnheiligen. At first I drove beside the vineyards along the Main, then through the steep wooded hills known as the Steigerwald, emerging at last onto a rolling plain. And immediately I saw that the word chapel would not do for Neumann's majestic structure. I could see it from 20 minutes away, and thought how clever the saints had been to show up on a hilltop, a site that magnified the thrust of the basilica they must—in theory—have known would someday come.

I parked a few hundred yards down the hill, and then it was up and around a couple of steep curves on foot, past a field of sheep and onto the esplanade where the church rides over its valley. Huge: and yet the thing appeared to sway. Most buildings its size are anchored by a colonnade or a street. Vierzehnheiligen isn't, and the towers over its west portal rise so high above the nave as to seem like a false front, so massively insubstantial that it looks as though they, and not the lazy clouds above them, might simply float away.

Neumann used a honey-colored sandstone for the façade, but neither its warmth nor the play of its surface prepared me for the vivid brilliance of the interior. Soft white and creamy blue, shades of pink and apricot jam—the high windows made this marzipan wonder look as bright as day, but nothing shone and the whole seemed instead to throw the light back in a mild radiance. And smack in the middle of the nave, on the very spot of the saints' alleged appearance, was an ornate baldachin, a shrine decorated with fourteen gypsum-white statues. There was St. Vitus, the patron of youth, and Catherine with a chunk of her wheel, and Denis, the first bishop of Paris holding his decapitated head in his hands. It was an ensemble of such commanding and unearthly presence that it made the church's main altar look almost like an afterthought, somewhere off in a corner.

I found a stool and sat down to soak in the church's spatial drama, my notebook open and binoculars around my neck. And then, just before noon, the west door opened and the sunlight roared in. The bells began to ring, and I turned to see a hundred 10-year-olds approaching. CHILDREN UNDER WAY WITH GOD, read the banner they carried, and it gave the name of their school in a town 20 miles away. But they didn't look as pious as I suspect their teachers would have wished. Most of them skipped past the holy water as they entered, and one boy who did stop to cross himself also forgot to remove his baseball cap, two habits fighting it out within him. Still, they seemed happy to be there, and later there came other children, teenagers. A girl of 15 got herself stuck in the confessional; she'd put herself in the priest's booth and pretended to absolve her boyfriend's sins. But now the door was locked, she couldn't get out, and one of her friends had to fetch the sexton—who laughed. And watching, I could see that the kids were relieved at that laughter, and that both the play and the relief were in equal measure a mark of their own Catholicism.

Yet as I sat there I began to feel a surprising ambivalence, not so much about the teenagers' behavior as about Vierzehnheiligen itself. For I couldn't quite imagine that scene in another kind of church, another kind of architecture. Doubtless it happens, but I can't picture that sexton's carefree amusement, or indeed my own, in the brooding corridors of Durham Cathedral or in Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore, which Henry James had described as "one of the churchiest churches in Europe." Those places have the capacity to stir and to trouble. This one was simply a delight, and its fluid, undulating space didn't seem especially "churchy." Its foamy, buoyant design appealed to the same part of me that enjoys movie musicals, and indeed the milky stucco of the saints' faces on that shrine had a purity as exaggerated as greasepaint. I would have loved it all in any secular building, but I couldn't talk myself into believing that such a place could stand as what Philip Larkin, in his poem "Church Going," calls "a serious house on serious earth."

I spent the night in Bamberg, a city split by a fast-flowing river, where kayakers rowed in the middle of the town itself. And late the next morning, still unsure just what I thought, I began my drive south, at first using the autobahn to edge around Nürnberg, then turning east onto a nameless and numberless road that took me down the valley of the Altmühl. Picture-book Germany, with ruined castles on cliff tops. Signs warned of deer crossings, and the walls of the roadhouse at which I stopped for lunch were covered with antlers. After lunch, it started to rain, a drizzle slipping into a downpour, my wipers squeaked and the car seemed to hydroplane on the slippery road, and then a bridge threw me over another river, and I realized that I had crossed the Danube.

My goal was Kloster Rohr, a monastery church in a town so small, it didn't even figure on my map. Finding it required me to stop three times for directions and finally to box the compass through an agricultural landscape of hopyards and grain fields; I saw villages so comically named that they reminded me of England's—Untermantelkirchen, right next to Obermantelkirchen, like Upper and Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds. On these country lanes, what might have been a half hour's drive from the Danube took closer to two, but it was just as well, for the church was closed when I arrived. In restauro? I prepared to stomp my foot and curse, but no, it was only a confirmation class, the doors would open soon, and so I sat in Kloster Rohr's lone café reading the London Review of Books and watching an old, unshaven monk drink three quick glasses of beer.

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