restricted access 2. Eucharistic Architecture: Jean Labatut and the Search for Pure Sensation
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CHAPTER TWO Eucharistic Architecture Jean Labatut and the Search for Pure Sensation In 1973, the University of Virginia awarded the prestigious Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Medal to Jean Labatut for his lifetime contribution to the advancement of architecture.1 Previous recipients included Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1966), Alvar Aalto (1967), Marcel Breuer (1968), John Ely Burchard (1969), Kenzo Tange (1970), Jose Luis Sert (1971), and Lewis Mumford (1972). Labatut’s name has fallen into obscurity. But to his contemporaries, he was known as one of the most influential teachers of the mid-twentieth century in America. The Jefferson Medal recognized Labatut as a “teacher of teachers.” Indeed, his old Princeton student, J. Norwood Bosserman (MFA, 1952), presided over the awards ceremony as dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, while eight of his other pupils sat as heads of prominent architecture schools. Labatut’s circle of students included some of the greatest postmodern American architects, from Robert Venturi to Charles Moore. He taught them to despise the rarified abstraction of corporate modernism and to be interested in developing a more popular architecture based on the creative reading of everyday objects (such as the great American road, folk art, commercial signage, or historic architecture), on the frank visual expression of mundane construction materials, and on the organization of spaces around people’s ordinary gestures and movements. Labatut understood the architect to be a visual artist who, in order to be effective, should learn not just the academic rules of composition but also the commercial and popular techniques of visual communication. But the architect’s promiscuity with crass commercialism was justified only, advised Labatut, to elevate it to a high spiritual art. He taught students that buildings were the organization of attention. Good buildings engaged people, sustained their intellectual and spiritual curiosity, and communicated meaningful experiences to them. Through his students, Labatut’s teachings helped shape postmodern architecture and promoted the view that the best way to understand this new architecture was to experience it. Labatut’s success as a teacher rested on the clarity of his 25 message: before architects could create modern buildings , they had to first be able to experience buildings in a modern way. His pedagogy aimed to define this modern experience as a bodily communion with architecture, which was immediately meaningful and did not require intellectual reflection. Architectural phenomenology was formed against the background of Labatut’s teachings. Indeed, the emergence and career of architectural phenomenology cannot be properly understood without bringing Labatut from under the shadow of the generation that followed his. Camouflage Labatut liked to say that his architectural education began during World War I when, as a nineteen-yearold , he served in the French Army Corps of Engineers and worked on the project to camouflage the Grand Canal of Versailles, preventing German planes from using it to orient themselves toward Paris.2 Such projects were supervised by the French army’s Service de camouflage. Established in 1915, and the first of its kind in military history, the service enlisted visual artists to paint disruptive patterns on artillery units and sniper suits, to model listening posts in the shape of animal carcasses, to paint miles of canvas to look like roads and suspended above ground to conceal troop movements, and to modify landmark buildings to avert air strikes.3 Through the artists of the Service de camouflage, Labatut was exposed to some of the most advanced contemporary visual art theory. He quickly learned the practical application of cubist notions about the visual dissolution of mass through contour and object matching.4 This was a defining experience for Labatut. It turned his attention to buildings as material to be shaped by the visual artist, persuaded him that the visual arts were not simply meant to delight but also to be socially useful, and forged his sense of an indissoluble bond between advanced technology, progressive society, and avant-garde art. As a first lesson in architecture, learning to make buildings disappear was not without irony. Labatut liked to teach camouflage to his students as a way to illustrate his view that architects should learn about visual principles from 26 EUCHARISTIC ARCHITECTURE existing buildings before venturing to design. To effectively camouflage a building required studying it with precision from various angles and at different times of the day. He had to examine what made the structure visually stand out from its context; everything from the pattern of the shadows it cast, to the uniqueness...