In the early 1960s, Bishop Michel-Louis Vial of Nevers, France, held an open competition to design a church in honor of St. Bernadette Soubirous, famous for her visions of Mary at Lourdes a century earlier. Among the submissions was a plan for a strange, hulking assemblage of gray stone and cement, modeled after bunkers from the Second World War. Designed by a pair of France’s most inventive architectural thinkers, Claude Parent and Paul Virilio, the church features two massive, curved shells that rise to a fracture at their apexes. Shaped like a periscope, the fracture allows natural light to penetrate down into the center of a sanctuary made of sloped planes. The interior is modeled after an anatomical heart, leading congregants to circulate through ventricles to Confession and Communion.
Alienating as it might appear, the church is warmly lit inside, with broad, rounded walls that recall the cave where Mary appeared to Bernadette. Outside, simple grass surrounds the behemoth, suggesting the fortifications flanked by natural landscapes in the north of occupied France, where Virilio, born in 1932, had his childhood punctuated by air raids.
It was a jarring way to honor a saint who saw Mary in a grotto, where millions now travel each year in hopes of healing. Bishop Vial admitted as much to Virilio, as the latter recalled in an interview years later: “‘The other project being considered,’ [the bishop] told me, ‘is a small chapel with little angels, but there is so much hatred for your project, this pile of concrete, that I am going to choose it.’” Construction of the Church of St. Bernadette in Banlay, or more colloquially the “bunker church” or “blockhouse,” finished in 1966.