Many know that when his native France fell to the Nazis, Catholic philosopher and art theorist Jacques Maritain moved to Princeton. What is less known is the impact he had there. Conversations with Maritain seem to have re-invigorated the dormant faith of the unjustly neglected architect Jean Labatut, who became graduate director of Princeton’s School of Architecture. “Maritain was interesting to Labatut,” explains Jorge Otero-Pailos, “because he claimed that there were many non-philosophical ways of knowing being. Here was a philosopher who thought that philosophy did not have a monopoly on Truth!”
That from a chapter entitled “Eucharistic Architecture” in Otero-Pailos’ book Architecture’s Historical Turn, filled with fascinating photographs of Labatut’s massive model of his Church of the Four Evangelists on Princeton’s Campus in the fifties. But these Catholic architectural forays went beyond mere models. Labatut redesigned the Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart in Princeton, inspired by a trip he took with Maritain to France to the Dominican convent of Toulouse (where Thomas Aquinas is buried). Labatut’s quest was a Eucharistic architecture for the twentieth-century that would “turn the visitors’ attention toward their bodies, to discover their incarnated soul.”
This was not modernism. Labatut was critical of the Bauhaus for disregarding history and denying subjectivity, both of which he sought to recover. But nor was Labatut’s architecture neo-traditional. Informed by Maritain (who was anything but a traditionalist!), Labatut moved through modernism and was informed by it. This ethos made Princeton’s Architecture School in the fifties and sixties a seedbed for advanced Catholic reflection on architecture. The result? Labatut and Maritain thereby, according to Otero-Pailos, “contributed to the dissolution of the architectural object and the liberation from the modernist style that set the stage for postmodernism.”
Why not, instead of complaining about godless modern and postmodern architecture (and thereby indirectly reinforcing a fading narrative), pay attention to the subtle ways that story is being retold?