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The Popemobile is a detachable piece of 'symbolic infrastructure'

What His Holiness can teach us about blue-screen thinking

That the Vatican has struck a deal with YouTube, launching its own channel earlier this week, should not come as a surprise. The church has always been a technological organisation. From the tips of the spires to the depths of the graves, every piece of every church is a device – an assemblage of gadgets that deliver information, experience and ideology.

YouTube ‘pontiff-vision’ is simply another layer in this agglomeration of devices. The channel will allow St Peter’s Square to be distributed across the planet, and if we think of these video clips playing on thousands of screens, we might imagine them as the stained glass windows of a dispersed cathedral. Equally, one might speculate on a high-definition upgrade to a place like Chartres, the medieval glass replaced with liquid crystal panels through which the sun streams animated narratives. To borrow the phrasing of Public Enemy’s Chuck D, stained glass was the CNN of the medieval world.

It is in the context of thinking about the ‘symbolic infrastructure’ that we see in churches and cathedrals that I have a fascination with the Popemobile. We might think of it as a piece of architecture, a detachable piece of the Vatican that not only transports the pontiff, but an idea of the architecture that plays such a central role in papal ceremony.

Its scale also suggests a bespoke personal scale, almost as if it were tailored. Perhaps the Popemobile is not so much a vehicle as a form of mechanised robing - a vehicular extension of the papal robes. This is probably why it is usually white.

The Popemobile is a rare object that exists at the intersection of different object-orders. On one hand it is part of the contemporary product-language of car design, but it’s also related to an older order of things where objects were thought of as invested with supernatural qualities. Its hybrid culture seems to span disparate influences, including futurist auto-philia, luxury car design, Catholic heraldic symbolism, Archigram-esque moving architecture and Star Wars Stormtrooper styling.

The Popemobile isn’t a single vehicle, but an idea that is re-interpreted over and over again. It is most often a customised version of a locally manufactured vehicle – a Mercedes in Germany, a Range Rover in the UK and a Peugeot in France. These multitudinous Popemobiles are a weird kind of vernacularism that melds the papal design brief with the bodywork of a production vehicle. They form a strange family of vaguely similar vehicles that become pilgrim sites after the Pope has gone.

Customisations include specifications like this, applied to a General Motors pick-up truck for a Canadian visit: couch seating for 10; plush red-velour carpeting; dual air-conditioners; 2in armourplate; enclosed cockpit of bulletproof glass; modified eight-cylinder engine; four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive; two specially lined gas tanks impervious to explosives; special communications equipment; and other (unspecified) security apparatus.

The architecture and design of the church uses mechanisms of varying technological sophistication. We might think of a church as a kind of cloud of objects, things and materials that solidify into architecture because of their number and density. From the way a pew makes you sit, the acoustic resonance, the way the plan organises and constructs space and the massing of the building in relation to its context, a host of implicit devices manufacture particular meanings and qualities. These work alongside more direct narrative and communicative devices: the iconography of the cross, the manifestations of biblical narratives through carving, stained glass and so on.

These are all ways in which the physical construct of church architecture is actually a kind of machine for belief, a complex device for manufacturing sensations of faith. That we can drive it (the Popemobile) or hyperlink it (YouTube) is simply another layer of technology in the physical fabric of the church.

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