From Maybeck To Megachurches
The social turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s manifested itself in a significant shift of emphasis in religious architectural design. The single-purpose sanctuary, typified by bold, expressive forms, was on the decline.
This decade ushered in the rise of multiple-use worship rooms, the new credo of congregations seeking maximum utility from their buildings. Perhaps arising from escalating building and energy costs, from shrinking denominational resources, or simply as an extension of the social-relevancy movement of the time, the keyword was "'flexibility."
Prototypical of this flexibility was the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in East Hartford, Connecticut, completed in 1973. Designed by Russell Gibson von Dohlen, Inc., this was the ultimate utilitarianism, a square box with exposed ceiling trusses and mechanicals, a simple capsule-shaped space for utilities, and a completely flexible seating area. Natural light is admitted by the floor-level slotted windows that punctuate the building's perimeter.
The 1980s saw the emergence of large membership churches, or "megachurches," as they are now commonly known. Characterized by huge congregations, charismatic leadership, multiple services, and no denominational affiliation, the megachurches tended to reach out to the urban and suburban "non-churched."
Perhaps the first and most famous megachurch was the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, home to the televangelism ministry of the Reverend Robert Schuller. Completed in phases, the main sanctuary was opened for services in 1980.
Designed by Philip Johnson, this religious reinterpretation of the crystal palace is shaped like a four pointed star. The building is huge, measuring 207 by 415 feet (63 by 125 meters), and rising to a height of 128 feet (40 meters).
Clad in mirrored glass over a uniform space frame, the design boasts passive solar heating and wind cooling obtained through operable strips of ventilating windows.
Originally planned to be set in a park-like environment, the building now sits in a parking lot. Portions of the exterior walls open, allowing congregants to remain in their cars while viewing the worship service.
Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois is another of the heralded megachurches, with numerous articles appearing about the charismatic pastor and his 300-person church ministry staff.
The 60,000-square-foot (5600-square-meter) complex included an auditorium sized to seat 4,500, numerous classrooms, chapel, banquet hall, gymnasium, library, and recreational activity center.
As Paul Goldberger noted in his New York Times review, this megachurch is characterized by a distinct absence of Christian symbolism and, coupled with the adjacent food court, takes on the appearance of a suburban mall.
The building is intentionally non-church-like because the ministry is to reach those who have rejected or never accepted traditional denominational church ministry.
Goldberger mused that the architecture is "friendly and accessible, determined to banish the sense of mystery and otherworldliness that has long been at the very heart of the architecture of Christianity."
The trend of the 90s may have been the growth of cultural pluralism evidenced in religious architecture in the form of a regional vernacularism.
The Gates of the Grove Synagogue, designed by Norman Jaffe and erected in Easthampton, New York, exhibits a wood shake exterior cladding typical of the residential context in this eastern tip of Long Island.
While the exterior form is reminiscent of the old wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe, the building is decidedly contemporary with large bands of skylights and rich usage of finished light woods. The bimah is a free-standing table, set against the backdrop of the ark and framed by glass vistas of the natural park-like setting of the exterior.
As with many modern interpretations of spatial development, the knife edge separation between interior and exterior allows the sanctuary to flow easily to the outside. This transparency recalls the original tabernacles of the Jews of pre-temple times, when the place for worship was a carefully prescribed tent structure, which was erected and dismounted as needed.
Summarizing a Century
Common denominators of these examples are evident despite the diversity of religious faiths and cultural backgrounds.
Certainly a common characteristic is the successful and unusual introduction of natural light. Whether through overhead skylights focused on the altar, unseen windows admitting a wash of light across a suspended cross, or direct and indirect vistas to the exterior, light is a critical ingredient.
Secondly, simple, geometric plans such as squares, triangles, and hexagons are common to the most dramatic of these examples. Some would label them sacred geometries, not unlike the mandalas of eastern faiths.
Third, there is a vertical axiality of the campanile, the spire, the divining rod that points to a higher authority and directs transcendent energy to us on earth. This axis-mundi is one of the most common elements of religious architecture.
The fourth common element is the use of volume of space to inspire. Even the "non-churches," the megachurches, rely on large volumes of spaces to enhance worship. The act of worshipping together with 5,000 people in a single space has to be inspirational for those participating.
Finally, the shape or mass of the buildings themselves frequently evokes a cultural or religious imagery pertinent to that particular faith group. This plumbs the depths of mystery and archetypal forms, which can produce a sense of understanding that transcends our ordinary secular lives.
From the perspective of historical context, there are a few identifiable trends. The patterns of architectural evolution seen in 20th century America, starting with experimental modernism and moving to internationalism, brutalism, and postmodern eclecticism, all have their religious building counterparts.
But this architectural evolution has also been tempered by liturgical reform, changing styles of worship, rapidly changing technologies, and cyclical economic times.
Where Are We Going from Here?
With the exception of the occasional megachurch, more modest, regionally vernacular houses of worship seemed to dominate the religious building scene in the last decade of the 20th century.
That trend should continue into the first decade of the new millennium. Given our insatiable appetite for new technologies and an ever increasing speed at which these changes are delivered, however, I suspect we will experience anew the cycle of a dominant architectural trend that rises, matures, and fades from popularity.
It took about 100 years for this cycle to play out in the 20th century. The unanswered question is how long the cycle will last in the 21st century.
Douglas Hoffman is a partner of Weber Murphy Fox, an architectural and construction management firm and managing editor of Faith & Form Magazine.
This article first appeared in Faith & Form, Number 2, 2000. It was adapted from a lecture given at the 1996 convention of the American Institute of Architects in Minneapolis, Minnesota