Postmodern Museum vs. Notre Dame Cathedral — The Broad vs. the Lofty

By Tom Gilson Published on April 16, 2019

I was driving through Michigan early one Sunday morning a few weeks ago. My route took me near my alma mater, Michigan State University, so I detoured for a visit.

I snapped this photo of Mary Mayo Hall, where I lived the whole time I was a student there. One reason I stayed in the dorm all four years was for the beauty. There was the box elder tree right outside my dorm window, where my roommate, Steve, and I hung a makeshift bird feeder. Dozens of redpolls dined there daily. (That tree is gone now, I’m sad to see.)

There was the magnolia tree near the president’s residence, right along my walk from Mayo Hall to the Music Building, which my other virtual place of residence in those days. Just a few steps east of there was Sleepy Hollow, a park, really, with Beaumont Tower and its carillon. There was the Red Cedar river, where I took a date on a canoe ride once, but mostly I remember for its quiet ripples as I sat on its banks and studied. There was the Lewis Arboretum — but really, the whole north campus was an arboretum.

Mary Mayo Hall, Michigan State University

Mary Mayo Hall, Michigan State University

I lingered on campus for more than an hour that morning, but the time came I had to leave. I drove east along Grand River, savoring the nostalgia and the beauty together.

Beauty Vandalized

Then came the assault. Not physical, but visual. “Vandalism! They’ve ruined our campus!” The words thrust into my mind, unbidden, unstoppable.

I’d never heard of the Broad Art Museum, never imagined anything so monstrous being foisted on this classic campus. I’d rather I didn’t know about it now.

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But apparently I’ve been out of touch. MSU Today reported on its construction in 2010, in an article titled, “World Class Building Under Construction With Broad Art Museum Groundbreaking.” MSU was a world class campus; apparently that wasn’t good enough.

The article quotes then-MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, “Mr. Broad has spoken of the importance of knowing the art of one’s time so we may know ourselves better. … This Zaha Hadid design will send the message we want – that great art deserves great architecture.”

That last bit is true enough — but a great campus also deserves architecture that doesn’t besmirch it.

A “Corrugated … Jolt”

The Architectural Review speaks of the museum’s “corrugated prow.” Corrugated? I wish it were cardboard! It would have looked better to start with, and best of all, it wouldn’t have lasted long. Also in that article, the museum is described as “a contemporary jolt to the groves of academe.” As if the world needs another jolt.

Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum Falling Over

Earth-bound and visually crushing: the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Yesterday John Zmirak asked whether we’re too primitive to rebuild Notre Dame. It’s a great question. Notre Dame was built to uplift, to turn the eyes upward. This museum could hardly be more different. The Broad knows nothing of the lofty.

The Architectural Review used the nautical word “prow” for it, but I see no ship in its outlines. I see something more like a crouching, snarling rodent instead. The Cathedral of Notre Dame was built vertically; the Broad’s lines are as horizontal as they could be, earth-bound, chained to the ground. Indeed, from one angle it looks like it’s falling over, threatening to crush whatever comes near.

Contrasts Abounding

Contrasts between the two structures abound. Multiple doors and windows joyfully welcome the visitor to Notre Dame. I must assume there’s also a door into the Broad, but it’s carefully camouflaged.

Notre Dame was built to glorify God; the Broad Museum was apparently built so MSU could boast a “world class building.”

Notre Dame was constructed to promote awareness of God; the Broad Museum is there to “jolt.” It’s about sensation versus spirituality; a perfect picture of our age.

Rebuilding a Facade — Inside?

Back to John Zmirak’s question about rebuilding Notre Dame. Since he wrote that, hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged to that task, so the answer might be, “Yes, maybe, in a way.” But I fear the rebuilding will be spiritual pretense; a facade, as it were, on the inside where facades do not belong. For the spirit of modern man is too much like the Broad: earth-bound, sensation-seeking, ignorant of the lofty.

Maybe I’m more pessimistic than I need to be. Maybe setting our gaze on a cathedral, even a badly damaged one, will turn our eyes upward again. But we need more than metaphorical uplifting. We need to turn our eyes and hearts back toward God.


Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.

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