Today, our guest, historian Rob Zaretsky talks about our new houses of worship. The
University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
I realized my mistake as I was turning into the parking lot.
The new building -- with its wide glass facade, long and low body, and digital
billboard flashing Gateway -- was not the new local mall. Instead, it was the
new local mega-church.
Perhaps you're like me: increasingly confused between places where I lose my soul
as a consumer, and places where I find it again as a penitent. This convergence
of styles, however, is deliberate: the traditional church style is being supplanted
by new structures for the spirit. Contemporary church architecture is not meant
to awe or overwhelm. Instead it is meant to reassure and welcome, manage and even
entertain their huge flocks -- as department stores have traditionally done. The
transcendental and sublime are out; the everyday and functional are in.
This development is ironic, for it inverts an earlier historical trend. In the second
half of the nineteenth century, it was the newly born department store that mimicked
the sacred architecture, especially the great cathedrals. Developments in glass and
iron architecture provided the backbone and skin. At the same time, the so-called
"democratization of luxury" created rituals of consumption rather than of salvation.
The flagship Macy's in New York and Marshall Field's in Chicago are glorious American
examples of this trend. In late nineteenth-century Paris, it was Galeries Lafayette
and Le Bon Marché. (Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame oversaw
construction of Le Bon Marché.)
Novelist Emile Zola was the great chronicler of this socioeconomic revolution. He spent
months studying Le Bon Marché which became the thinly disguised Ladies Paradise in his
story of the same name. The heroine, Denise, newly arrived from the provinces, is awed
not by Notre Dame but by this department store. She gawks at its great façade. She's
as mesmerized by the brightly lit display windows as earlier pilgrims were by
stained glass cathedral windows.
Passing through the monumental entrance, Denise is enraptured. Inside the nave-like
central hall, her eyes are pulled upwards by the architecture's logic. But she's dazzled
not by the traditional iconography of passion, but by the endless displays of goods that
promise a heaven here and now.
The novel's narrator says, "It was the cathedral of modern commerce, light but solid,
made for a nation of customers." In his notes, Zola was even more explicit: the department
store "marches to the religion of the cash desk, of beauty and fashion. Women go there to
pass the hours as they used to go to church."
As I pull out of the church's parking lot
for the mall, I wonder. Perhaps the mega-church reflects the adaptability and practicality
of an institution much older than the department store. If so, the distance between these
two kinds of cathedrals has been short, longer than I thought.
I'm Rob Zaretsky at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive
E. Zola, The Ladies' Paradise. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
M. Miller, The Bon Marché. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).
Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College,
and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He is the author of Nîmes at War:
Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944.
(Penn State 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the
Camargue. (Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians.
(Berg 2001), translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag. (Penn State 2000)
and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn State 2001).
Below: Interior views of the Marshall Fields home store in Chicago (photos by JHL).
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.