Approaching from the south, the view up towards Saint Jean Bosco is misleadingly Mediterranean. With a backdrop of lustrous blue skies, the whitewashed reinforced concrete church gives the impression of being in the heart of a medina. The form of the spire, vaguely reminiscent of a minaret, has also given the church its nickname – le phare du quartier (the district lighthouse), an affectionate term for what has become a beacon in this multicultural area of Paris.
The decorative style of the church, labelled ‘gothic art-deco’ by the art historian Simon Texier, was the work of a little-known architect called Dumitru (Démetrius) Rotter. The church, funded by the Salesian sect, was originally conceived as just one element of a much larger project to provide education to the young disadvantaged of the area, but because of financial difficulties, only the church was ever built.
Instead, when built between 1933 and 1937, the final project divided the structure into two halves; an upstairs and a downstairs. The upstairs was to act as a traditional neighbourhood church, whereas the downstairs was designed to fulfill the Salesian educational role. Although to some extent this continues today, you are just as likely to find groups of multicultural and multi-faith kids enjoying an afternoon party in these converted function rooms.
Whereas many churches have decorative elements and bolted on extensions covering centuries and a multitude of styles, here is a building in which everything was planned and designed at the same time. Although the outside, with its claustra latticework, was clearly influenced by the Perret brothers' Notre Dame de la Consolation in Le Raincy (1922), the interior is far more original.
The similarities between Saint Jean Bosco (top) and Notre Dame de la Consolation (beneath) are very clear.The level of preservation is remarkable, even down to the sculptured wooden chairs in the pews. It is a resolutely modern church, a rectangular box structure, but the angled concrete pillars, polychrome mosaics and elegant stained glass windows mask the simplicity of the building and give it a monumental air.
What is most striking is the coherency of the ensemble. This is largely due to the fact that one company, Maumejean frères, had responsibility for the design and construction of the majority of works present in the church. They not only produced most of the stained-glass windows, but also worked on the mosaics and the marble fonts and alters.
The play of light and colour inside the building is almost theatrical, thanks in large part to a zenithal band of stained-glass windows around the edge of the ceiling. This light sets off the mosaics perfectly, although the chosen subjects seem a little dubious to my eyes. I can’t help wondering what the local North African population, who sometimes use the function rooms below, would make of a rather bloodthirsty fresque celebrating military victories over Muslim forces. An understandable choice in an 18th century church perhaps, but not one built in the 1930s.
The craftsmanship throughout is wonderful, particularly on the stained-glass windows which are expressionistic and sometimes almost cubist. Valérie Gaudard in her 2009 essay on the church points out that these were amongst the last examples of pictorial arts being used in a religious structure in France before abstract modernism took over in the 1940s. Their artistic qualities and their well-preserved state are the reasons why the building was classified as a historical monument in 2001. They should also be reason enough for you to make a visit!
Saint Jean Bosco, 79 Rue Alexandre Dumas, 75020 (M° Alexandre Dumas)