Guarini – Saarinen?

The Church of the Immacolata Concezione, Turin, and Modernism

In a December 2009 review of an exhibition on Eero Saarinen published in the Brooklyn Rail, the art critic Joseph Masheck wrote about the relation of certain aspects of modernism to the twentieth-century “rediscovery of the Baroque.” Mascheck, who was awarded the 2018 Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art by the College Art Association last week, specifically compared Saarinen’s forms with those of Guarino Guarini:

The Finnish-American Saarinen (1910-1961) is not unfamiliar in this context, if only owing to those who seem to think that the TWA Terminal (1958-62) at what is now John F. Kennedy International Airport must not be modernist because modernism means rectilinearity, and even they can see that this building is as curvy as Gina Lollobrigida.

“when I teach the building I show the similarity of its ground plan to the interpenetrating lobes of the plan of Guarino Guarini’s Church of the Immaculate Conception, Turin”

Surely a main spiritual “function” of the building was to coddle against Reisefieber the many travelers who some fifty years ago were waiting to take their first flight. Well, who said modernism can’t be polymorphous perverse! Actually, I’ve always thought that building had vital entailments, not only in regard to contemporary art—notably the Louisiana-born, ever-verging-on-tacky José de Rivera (1904-1985), whose curvaceous, revolving polished chrome sculptures are rather embarrassingly coincident with Saarinen’s forms, if not his saving amplitude—but also to art history. Ever since it was new it has seemed to me that the voluptuousness of its modernism, following upon Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel (1950-55), related just as vitally to the rediscovery of the Baroque, of which 18th-century rationalists had, one thought, definitively disposed. To this day, when I teach the building I show the similarity of its ground plan to the interpenetrating lobes of the plan of Guarino Guarini’s Church of the Immaculate Conception, Turin, of 1672-97, which was popularly accessible at the time of the terminal’s construction through Henry A. Millon’s still fascinating Baroque and Rococo Architecture (Braziller, 1961).

In fact, Millon deemed the Immacolata Concezione “Guarini’s most influential church design,” referring to its progeny in the eighteenth-century German-speaking regions. “The space, although violently shaped,” he noted, “is not interrupted but merges into an incredibly dynamic and expressive entity.” The same could also be said of Saarinen’s TWA terminal. Even more than the ground plan, Saarinen’s roof recalls Guarini’s vault – pinched and depressed in the center, and billowing upward as it expands at either end.

The Immacolata Concezione – technically only attributed to Guarini, but convincingly so – was not widely known before its appearance in Millon’s Baroque and Rococo Architecture. Notably, it did not feature in Rudolf Wittkower’s Pelican survey Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600-1750 (1958). While planning for the TWA terminal began well before the publication of Millon’s text, leaving any causal connection between the flight center and the Turinese church largely speculative, Guarini’s design clearly intrigued another prominent architect of the 1960s. Robert Venturi went on to include the Immacolata Concezione in his Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966), where it was the only building by Guarini represented. Venturi characterized the church as “a duality in plan and yet a unity,” citing Millon’s textbook as the source for his illustration. As part of Venturi’s influential book, the church entered the standard historical repertoire of late modernism and nascent postmodernism.

Further Reading:

Chiesa della Immacolata Concezione on the Città e Cattedrali website.

Chiesa della Immacolata Concezione on the Museo Torino website.

Immacolata Concezione as part of the “Documentazione Chiese Storiche” on the website of the Associazione Guarino Guarini.

Photo gallery of the church, on the website of Studio di Architettura Momo, responsible for restoration of the facade in 2006.

● Henry A. Millon, Baroque and Rococo Architecture (New York: George Braziller, 1961). [On the Immacolata Concezione, see pp. 22-23.]

● Luciano Tamburini, Le chiese di Torino: dal Rinascimento al Barocco, 2nd ed. (Turin: Edizioni Angolo Manzoni, 2002): 269-278.

● Henry A. Millon, “La chiesa dell’Immacolata Concezione a Torino,” in G. Dardanello, S. Klaiber, H. A. Millon, eds., Guarino Guarini (Turin: U. Allemandi,2006): 365-375.