Sometimes, a must-see is anything but a how-to.

What do you read in your spare time? I know, that’s assuming you even have spare time. Personally, I’ve tried to carve a little more time for this in 2008. My selections are usually non-fiction, and occasionally a little offbeat. In past years, I enjoyed Salt (by Mark Kurlansky), but not as much as Mauve (by Simon Garfield) or especially A History Of The World In Six Glasses (by Tom Standage). Such topics with a scientific/historical blend can really heighten one’s awareness of our oft-hidden relationship with natural resources, the uneven path toward the vast array of modern comforts we often take for granted, and the human innovation (occasionally joined by a more craven impulse, like greed) that has cleared that path.

The book I recently finished is Basilica – The Splendor And The Scandal: Building St. Peter’s, written by R.A. Scott. The litany of players passing through such an enormous project makes for a small lull about one-third into it, but overall, the author juggles the building’s design, construction, interpersonal drama, and contextual world events very well. Only during some reflection after finishing the book, however, did I realize an aspect of the book’s true utility: it is a cautionary tale about what can happen when you fail to embrace the commissioning process!

Long-Term Case Of Short-Term Work

Not that the final product didn’t work out well enough, of course. Regardless of religious disposition, anyone who has visited St. Peter’s in person can tell you that the basilica is a success. Imposing, massive, crafted … the structure makes the statement intended by the owner while serving its functional purpose as well. But at what cost?

The saga of demolishing the old St. Peter’s and completing the new structure spans a century and a half (fortunately, this was not a build-to-flip project). On one hand, it’s awe-inspiring that men could build it at all in those times, with the existing tools and design knowledge. On the other hand, St. Peter’s may be the all-time champ for cost overruns and changeorders.

In the beginning, there was an abundance of will (thanks to Pope Julius II), of talent (thanks to Bramante), and of funds (thanks to tithing and gifts from powerful friends across Europe and beyond). Yet, there was no design intent document, so to speak, and it would be decades before the project had both a comprehensive set of plans and a model for reference at the same time.

In the interim, the papacy changed hands over 20 times during the project. Despite the general wealth of the Catholic Church, which was a provincial government as well as religious organization in that era, the project sometimes ground to a complete halt for lack of funds. More perilously, some saw the project itself as a symbol of excesses allowed by certain Church leaders. Fundraising efforts on its behalf (e.g., selling indulgences) served to further raise the ire of many to the north. These factors contributed in their small way to the start of the Reformation itself, including a subsequently thorough and fairly brutal invasion and pillaging of Rome as a whole.

Neither of those events helped the project along, as you might expect, and yet it eventually reached completion. While one can easily look at the finished product and assume it is the cohesive product of a unified vision, that is far from the truth. Every major component of the design - the dome, the nave, the façade, the exterior approach - underwent major revision along the way. As a whole, St. Peter’s looks like no concept that any participating pope or designer had.

Nice Place To Visit, But ...

In the end, St. Peter’s is a stunning place to visit, and the book conveys as much of that sense as a book could. Yet, despite its fame, it is a poster child for project pitfalls. Careful estimates, clearly defined goals and design at the start, efficient management of subcontractors, quality control throughout … all absent. Sure, you can build a building this way, but even Michelangelo could tell the modern owner that the headaches are enormous (not even counting the invasion). And the ROI timeframe is most definitely unacceptable.  ES