ROME-One person thought it looked like a nuclear reactor. Another guessed a modern art museum; still another said an avant-garde theater. When residents from Rome's Tor Tre Teste neighborhood were asked to identify the structure shown in the photo, no one imagined that it was a house of God, the very church that is to symbolize Rome 2000, the celebration that will usher in the third millennium.

Last spring the diocese of Rome invited six internationally recognized architects to take part in a competition for the design of a new parish church in Tor Tre Teste, a lower-middle-income housing project about 30 miles east of Rome's center. The jury, presided over by Msgr. Luigi Moretti, secretary-general of the Rome vicariate, announced last summer that it had chosen a proposal by Richard Meier, a New York architect known for his elegant and abstract minimalist designs, among them, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the High Museum in Atlanta and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona.

Msgr. Moretti said Meier's design, characterized by three curved concrete walls joined by glass walls and glass ceilings, was chosen because it expresses modernity and history at once. “We invited six internationally-renowned architects in order to give the world, as well as the city of Rome, a sign of the Church's openness. This jubilee is for all Catholics and Meier's design will leave a message of universality for posterity,” Msgr. Moretti told the Register.

Respected Italian architect and architectural historian Bruno Zevi credited the vicariate's courage and intelligence in choosing Meier, who is Jewish. In a recent interview, Professor Zevi said: “Finally, for Jews, the accusations of deicide and perfidy have been abandoned. After 2,000 years of often ferocious antiSemitism, the Church has reached a radical turning point which has made it possible for a Jew to design a cathedral for Rome.”

Francesco Garofalo, a Rome architect who was a consultant to the competition, also praised the vicariate's choice: “[T]he Church has made it clear that the competition was based on talent and not on religious beliefs.”

From Early Christian to Baroque times, some of the greatest works of religious architecture in the world were created in and around the center of Rome. Unfortunately, some churches built in the city's suburbs in recent years are simply as bland and uninspired as the fragmented neighborhoods in which they are located. Other parishes are housed in faceless buildings that were never meant to be houses of worship.

Unlike in the United States, the word “suburb” in Rome does not conjure images of single-family homes with freshly-mowed lawns. Many of these areas, built in the 60s and 70s, are characterized by large, anonymous buildings that look as if they could be located anywhere. Gridlock traffic and inadequate public transportation contribute to local residents' sense of alienation from the rest of the city.

The church designed by Richard Meier, which will be named for “God the Merciful Father,” is one of the 50 new churches which the Vatican hopes to build by 2000 to help breathe new life into the suburbs. “My aim is to help reconnect Tor Tre Teste to the city itself,” said Meier in a recent interview in the Italian daily, La Repubblica.

But many Italian and American architects question whether Meier's modernist design will accomplish that. Duncan Stroik, associate professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, believes that nothing about the design of the church is powerful enough to welcome pilgrims or to create a place of refuge within the neighborhood. In a recent issue of Catholic World Report, he wrote: “Meier's church design has no recognizable figure or image; it has no reference to a typology of civic or sacred architecture; it is merely differentiated from surrounding buildings which themselves have no memorable form. It becomes a fragmentary building for a fragmented environment.”

According to Cardinal Camillo Ruini, Pope John Paul II's vicar for the city of Rome and president of the Italian episcopal conference, “new churches should express the religious climate of the time.” Perhaps that explains why the Rome vicariate invited only modernist architects to submit designs for the Church of the year 2000. But is modernism, a mid-20th century movement that prefers function over beauty and which exalts pure form and complex abstract elements, appropriate for the Church's needs? Many don't think so, believing instead that the Jubilee Church, which is to symbolize the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity, should echo a more traditional notion of sacred space.

While modernism still has influential adherents, including Meier and others enlisted by the Rome diocese-Tadao Ando from Japan, Gunter Behnisch from Germany, Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman from the United States-others feel that, at best, it can no longer be considered avant-garde, and at worst, that its lack of functionalism and durability has produced devastating social effects. “The legacy of modernism in our cities,” according to Stroik, “has been catastrophic; many cities have been all but ruined by the random distribution of unrelated buildings….”

Humane Urban Environments

At a U.N. conference on the future of cities last June, Pope John Paul II called for a return to more humane urban environments that are sensitive to traditional values. One of the critiques of modernism in architecture is, in fact, that it involves an individual designer's self-expression rather than filling an actual social need or respecting tradition.

Cabriele Tagliaventi, professor of architecture at the University of Bologna, is one of a growing number of European and American architects who have criticized modernism's effects on the urban landscape. “What does Cardinal Ruini mean when he says that new churches should reflect the spirit of the times? Should a religious space really be the physical representation of the evil and decadence that pervade our society? Shouldn't a church, at the very least, provide a message of hope?” asks Tagliaventi, who is currently a visiting professor at the University of Miami.

“Modernism is simply the negation of Christian thought and teaching,” adds Tagliaventi. “It represents the disintegration of values; for this reason, I cannot understand what interest the Church could possibly have in promoting this dangerous idea. The only explanation that I can offer is that the Vatican is a victim of the “emperor's new clothes” syndrome: the head of the Vatican's commission for the new churches is an architect of the modernist school. “Everyone else involved is afraid to say that the emperor is naked, that is, that they don't understand Meier's project, for fear of being ridiculed,” Tagliaventi told the Register.

Tagliaventi believes the Vatican has missed an opportunity to build churches which would really serve neighborhoods. In an article entitled “Churches of Horror” which recently appeared in the daily Il Giornale, he writes: “The construction of new churches which are inspired by Catholic tradition could provide a decisive stimulus for the transformation of peripheral areas into more humane neighborhoods. Why should the Church continue to perpetuate the separation in Italy between those who are fortunate enough to live in the city center and can take advantage of monumental churches and those who are condemned not only to live in horrendously ugly neighborhoods on the outskirts of town but must also worship in second-rate churches?”

Tagliaventi also chastises the Vatican for inviting only modernist architects to take part in the competition, thereby ignoring the current post-modernist trend in architecture which seeks to re-integrate historical elements within a contemporary context. This “new classical movement” in architecture has grown dramatically in recent years, critics charge.

“Why wasn't the competition open to all architects, both modernist and classical? More importantly, why didn't the Vatican ask the residents of Tor Tre Teste what kind of house of worship they would like? I'm sure that most would have preferred a traditional church.”

Silvana Di Sebestiani, a resident of Tor Tre Teste, was shocked to learn that the Church of God the Merciful Father will cost $5 million. “The name Richard Meier doesn't mean much to the people in this neighborhood. We would have settled for a more modest church and put the money to more practical use, like building better schools and improving public transportation,” she said.

Berenice Cocciolillo is based in Rome.