My experiments with the crèche.
As a boy, one of my Christmas chores was to make the little crèche that stood under our tree. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first Nativity scene in 1223, when he celebrated an outdoor midnight Mass for villagers, using an actual manger, complete with an ox and an ass as a backdrop. My crèche was peopled with small plaster figures of the holy family, the Magi, and a kneeling shepherd. No ox, but a lamb. The figures were beautifully painted—I always imagined they came from Italy.
I was given this responsibility not because of any budding architectural talent, but rather because as a model railroader I had learned to construct miniature buildings. In southern Poland, where my father was from, a crèche is called a szopka, literally “little shed,” although traditional Krakowian szopkas can be extremely ornate and elaborate, with turrets, steeples, and domes. My crèches were more in the little shed vein; one year I added a thatched roof made out of stalks of straw.
When I started architecture school, I became rather dismissive of my modest early efforts. Surely after three years of study I could do better than that. The French firebrand Le Corbusier was one of my early heroes, and I thought something along his line would be just the thing. I had seen photographs of the famous chapel at Ronchamp and cribbed the idea of a curved sculptural wall. The problem was how to fabricate it. I decided that the best way to make a curved wall was to use the same material as the master, that is, concrete. I built a form out of wood, mixed sand and cement, and poured it in. When I stripped away the wood it left a pattern of marks in the concrete—just like the real thing. Ronchamp was white, so I painted my wall to match.
I lugged the little structure up the basement stairs—it must have weighed 40 pounds—and set it up under the tree. I had to admit it was a little stark, especially when I added the delicately colored figures. The wall didn’t look much like a stable, but that was the whole point—it was a modern crèche. The tree was decorated with handmade ornaments and paper chains, and my wall had all the charm of a cement block. I don’t remember my parents’ reaction, but they must have sighed inwardly.
Architects, especially young architects, build and learn. The following year, the concrete wall stayed in the basement (it moldered there for years, too heavy to move). I made another crèche, likewise architectural, but this one a fragment of a vaguely Venetian arcade, with arches, roundels, and fluted columns with Byzantine-looking capitals. It resembled a piece of stage scenery, which somewhat assuaged my guilt at abandoning the modernism I was being taught. But I had to admit the Magi looked more at home.
Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.