• U.S.

Design: Creating for God’s Glory

6 minute read
Wolf Von Eckardt

Church architects are turning out striking new buildings

During most of the post—World War II era, offices, apartments and even billboards have dwarfed church steeples. In response, religious buildings have frantically vied for attention with bizarre bell towers, frenzied A-frames and strange paraboloids. But until recently, few churches have managed to convey a religious quality beyond that of a contorted steeple or a neon JESUS SAVES sign.

All that seems to be undergoing considerable change. Many church architects are now producing more exciting work than colleagues who are straining to overcome the discredited, bare and square look of modern office towers and apartment houses. “If you had to pick a single piece of decent architecture that could rightfully be called post-modern,” says William Houseman, editor of Architecture Minnesota, “the Colonial Church of Edina, Minn., might well be it.”

The Colonial Church, on the outskirts of Minneapolis, was designed by Architect Richard F. Hammel, 58, of Hammel Green Abrahamson, Inc., a Minneapolis-based firm. “Designing religious buildings is arduous,” says Hammel. “It took six years of discussions and hard work with the congregation and its pastor, Dr. Arthur Rouner Jr., to achieve a harmonious understanding of the function and meaning of their church. But it is wonderful work, because something other than dollars is valued. You are designing for the celebration of human life.”

The church, which opened in 1979, is a kind of mini-village on a 22-acre site along a man-made lake. It consists of a meetinghouse or sanctuary that seats 1,000, a freestanding tower, a parlor for small weddings and other assemblies, a social hall, a youth center and a library with staff offices. It was conceived in the Pilgrim and Puritan tradition of early New England churches, but its form is traditional only in that the white-trimmed gray clapboard and spire convey a sense of historic continuity. The architecture is closer to the modern simplicity of Mies van der Rohe than the baroque intricacy of Sir Christopher Wren.

Another enchanting example of contemporary architecture is also religious—the 22-month-old Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Ark. It is one of the most popular and widely publicized of new American buildings. The secluded chapel, which seats about 130, won an award for excellence from the American Institute of Architects and was sought out last year by 120,000 visitors. Noting its striking qualities, the A.I. A. Journal says, “It is a building of great integrity.”

At once familiar and novel, the chapel was built for wayfarers rather than a resident congregation. No larger than a tall barn, it stands at the bend of a wooded trail, high in the Ozark Mountains. An almost transparent structure of mostly timber and glass, it seems to be one with the surrounding woods and rocks. The chapel’s architect, E. Fay Jones of Fayetteville, Ark., who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, describes it as a kind of reversal of gothic cathedral architecture. The trusses inside the structure form a repetitive, rhythmic lattice pattern as evocative as a Bach fugue.

Among the most active churches in the U.S. is the small and simple St. Peter’s Lutheran 5 Church on Lexington Avenue in midtown Manhattan. St. Peter’s, which opened in 1977, adorns the base of Hugh Stubbins Jr.’s 59-story Citicorp Center. Although it is not, strictly speaking, part of the Citicorp skyscraper, it too was designed by Stubbins and fits masterfully into his overall architectural vision. Stubbins’ church holds its own at the foot of the somewhat brutish 915-ft. Citicorp tower. The church’s uncluttered, skylit interiors were created by Vignelli Associates using natural colors and materials. Sculptor Louise Nevelson designed the church’s small but exquisite Erol Beker Chapel of the Good Shepherd. St. Peter’s is indeed a sanctuary in a cold and hectic city.

All three of these churches are pointing the way toward a vital new expression in religious architecture. In the recent past, religious leaders and architects often conceived of modern churches as “religious plants” to accommodate psychiatric counseling, Sunday-school rooms, party kitchens, banquet halls and diverse country-club facilities. The sanctuary, scheduled for the last phase in fund-raising drives, often never made it. Sometimes services were held in low-ceilinged, linoleum-floored “fellowship halls.”

“The ’60s were the years of Christian education, classrooms and playgrounds,” says Architect David K. Cooper, 28, who designed the Salem Baptist Church, Orland Park, Ill., and St. John the Baptist Church in Winfield, Ill. “The ’70s were the years of Christian fellowship and multiple-purpose meetingrooms. Now, in the ’80s, it seems, the emphasis is on worship.”

Cooper, who works for C. Edward Ware & Associates, with headquarters in Rockville, Ill., is fairly typical of the roughly 1,500 to 2,000 church architects practicing in the U.S. today. Ware employs 25 architects and draftsmen and designs about 20 churches a year, three times as many as five years ago. “Our clients are excited about the challenge of building a church and attracting more people,” says Cooper. “Nowadays, congregations want to participate actively in the liturgy—to sing more, to move more, to celebrate. They don’t want spaces that confine them merely to listening to the pulpit and organ. They want spaces that give them a sense of community and freedom.”

Despite the current building slump, many church architects are very busy. Judith A. Miller, administrative assistant of the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture, a professional association of theologians and designers of religious institutions, points out, “They are designing small buildings on small budgets. Church and synagogue design is no longer a matter of architectural theatrics, but of economy and liturgy.”

Congregations seldom take their architect’s first inspiration as gospel any more. Building committees do much soul searching about their needs. To develop a building program, says Architect Pietro Belluschi, is often in effect “to explore our relationship with God and to search for an understanding of the nature of religion as an institution.” Belluschi, dean emeritus of the School of Architecture and Planning at M.I.T., is famous for, among other things, his simple, reverent churches in Oregon.

For Architect Percival Goodman, who has designed more than 50 religious and community buildings in the U.S., including handsome synagogues in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Michigan, the religious building of the future will be “modest in size and frugal in use of materials.”

We seem, at long last, to be headed for a humbler architecture of worship, rather than an ostentatious worship of architecture.

—By Wolf Von Eckardt

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com