Page C1.2 . 08 August 2001                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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    From Maybeck To Megachurches


    All were exploring new design concepts in their work. Two benchmark religious buildings in the first decade of the century were the products of this innovative thinking.

    Maybeck completed the First Church of Christ, Scientist in 1910 in Berkeley, California. In Oak Park, Illinois, Wright completed the Unity Temple for a Unitarian congregation in 1906. Both churches were built for relatively young and "non-mainline" denominations.

    While the Unitarians had been around since the early 1800s, the Christian Scientists had been organized only a few decades before by Mary Baker Eddy. As "outsider" denominations, they probably felt a stronger urge for a new, identifiably different style of religious building.

    Both architects complied with distinctive designs, yet surprising similarities exist between these buildings.

    Each architect used exposed concrete, with Wright using it as the principal building material and Maybeck, for floors and columns. Maybeck was as daring as Wright, using industrial materials such as the exterior asbestos panels and metal framed windows.

    Both chose rectilinear volumetric enclosures, based on a square floor plan anchored with four equi-spaced piers. Each used these piers both for structural support and air distribution.

    Both architects used light to their advantage, Wright with perimeter clerestories and overhead skylights, and Maybeck with clerestory windows and large panels of mottled Belgian glass to create an incandescence on the interior. Both evoked a sense of mystery with the exterior styling and ritualistic entry paths.

    The 1920s

    The religious architecture of the twenties might have been dubbed the era of "more is more," long before "less is more" became the vogue. There was a cathedral building boom epitomized by the construction of St. John the Divine in New York City and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

    In the heartland of America, (Tulsa, Oklahoma), Barry Byrne completed Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in 1926. The largest and most complex of Byrne's commissions, this commission reflected the nation-wide interest in Gothic, but in a novel, contemporary iteration.

    The 1930s and 40s

    With the Great Depression of the 30s, many projects went on hold, including the large American cathedrals already in progress. Meanwhile, architectural innovation was occurring more in Europe than in the United States.

    But with the rise of fascism, there was an exodus of artists and architects to the United States. Suddenly the International Style emerged here, with "simplicity" and "less is more" the new canons of American architecture.

    The European-born father-and-son team of Eliel Saarinen and Eero Saarinen contributed some of the finest mid-century examples of religious architecture, starting with their First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana (1942).

    The building complex is a series of simple rectangular blocks laid in composition around a central courtyard, originally planned as a reflecting pond. The church plan, vaguely reminiscent of a classical basilica, is a simple asymmetric rectangle.

    Within the sanctuary, the focus is intentionally blurred, although the eye is inevitably drawn to the cross hung on the rear wall. Natural light is admitted from vertical slotted windows along one side wall, creating an interesting rhythmic pattern to counterbalance the colonnade along the opposite side.

    The 1950s and 60s

    With the interruption of World War II, the next spate of religious building occurred in the late 50s and early 60s. Fresh from global victory and with visions of a new world harmony, the "manifest destiny" of American religious architecture exclaimed triumph. This period witnessed exploration of evocative forms and experimentation with engineering and religious innovation.

    Illustrative of this new period of dramatic form, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin in 1959. Although in the last year of his life, Wright was still able to generate a new and distinctively different architectural expression.

    One can see characteristic Wright touches, but this is also a form dedicated to a Greek Orthodox congregation and derived from Byzantine antecedents. The design is basically a traditional orthodox dome superimposed over a floor-plan in the shape of a Greek cross.

    The four piers elevating the composition are reinterpretations of the same four corner piers at Unity Temple in Chicago. The placement of the composition in front of a reflecting pool is an effective calming and enhancing medium to create an entirely different mood for the gathering congregation.

    By 1964, Eero Saarinen completed the North Christian Church, one of the most significant and inspiring forms in religious architecture at that time. The needlelike point of the central steeple became both the axis mundi pointing to the heavens beyond, and the lightning rod delivering celestial messages to the gathered congregation.

    The tent-like roof enclosure floats atop a shallow clerestory window, transforming the sanctuary into the primeval cavern of man's first and most primitive dwelling. The mystery of worship is enhanced in this darkened interior, with its glowing perimeter windows and sharply focused altar light cast from the central overhead oculus.



    ArchWeek Photo

    First Christian Church, Columbus, Indiana, 1942, by Eliel Saarinen and Eero Saarinen.
    Photo: Faith & Form Magazine

    ArchWeek Photo

    Christ the King Roman Catholic Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1926, by Barry Byrne.
    Photo: Penn State University Photo Archive

    ArchWeek Photo

    Boston Avenue Methodist Church, 1926, by Bruce Goff.
    Photo: Faith & Form Magazine

    ArchWeek Photo

    Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, 1959, by Frank Lloyd Wright.
    Photo: Penn State University Photo Archive

    ArchWeek Photo

    St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1961, by Marcel Breuer.
    Photo: Faith & Form Magazine

    ArchWeek Photo

    North Christian Church, Columbus, Indiana, 1964, by Eero Saarinen.
    Photo: Faith & Form Magazine

    ArchWeek Photo

    Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church, East Hartford, Connecticut, 1973, by Russell Gibson von Dohlen, Inc.
    Photo: Penn State University Photo Archive

    ArchWeek Photo

    Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Santa Rosa, California, 1972, by DRM.
    Photo: Faith & Form Magazine


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