Enjoyed hosting IIT Professor and director of the Ph.D. program Michelangelo Sabatino this week for a lecture at ISU on New Harmony, Indiana and the collision of utopian thought, vernacular building, and the efforts to reconcile modernism and monumentality after World War II. Michelangelo’s lecture and a seminar he led afterwards on the “secret history” of IIT were brilliant, as anticipated, showing how the histories we tell usually tidy things up in ways that ignore the more interesting and difficult realities of building. IIT’s history in particular is bound up with all of the racial and urban politics of the 1940s and 1950s–a theme that is becoming increasingly dominant in the preliminary research I’m doing on Chicago’s postwar skyscrapers–but even in so neat a story of New Harmony and the role of Philip Johnson and the patroness of the “Roofless Church” the relationship between architectural and social history is always richer and more complex than we can even realize.
Anyway, what does all that have to do with the rather impressive scene above? Well, usually when colleagues come to Ames to lecture there’s a deal we strike that involves either food or architectural sites. Usually that’s ribs (or grill-your-own-steak) and a tour of Grinnell, Drake University, and the Des Moines Art Center, but Michelangelo asked immediately if we could go to West Bend to see the Grotto of the Redemption, a city-block-sized piece of devotional folk art constructed by a Catholic priest from 1912-1959. It is a really dramatic piece of vernacular architecture, and well worth the afternoon in the car and a pork tenderloin lunch (see? Food is always part of the deal) at Community Tavern in Fort Dodge. (Also famous for having a bit part in David Lynch’s The Straight Story and in Rome colleague Dan Hurlin’s opera Lawnmower Man.)
It lived up to its billing as an overwhelming experience–sort of like being pulled headlong into a Howard Finster painting for an hour or so–and utterly immersive. The artist, Father Paul Dobberstein, was clearly enthralled by the Renaissance ideal of the garden grotto as a manifestation of both sacred place and sensual atmosphere. His work is literally encrusted with stones and gems donated from all over the planet and with sculptures of Carrara marble that make direct references to the Italian traditions of grottoes and figurative religious art.
All a bit much for someone raised with a Presbyterian preference for plain, slightly uncomfortable church interiors? Sure, but there is an absolutely impressive scale of time if not space to the place, and the sheer quantity of labor involved makes it a sacred place no matter what you think of its architecturally. It’s an odd thing to think of places like this as ‘pure,’ but they’re certainly unencumbered by the weight of any sort of academic theory, which made this a particularly refreshing jolt to the visual cortex. The Grotto is visited by something like 100,000 people every year (two others while we were there, probably not the most auspicious weather to view the glittering stones in), suggesting that there’s something here that academics often give short shrift.