God’s Houses Part II

Modern architecture was slow in moving into religious buildings, and the first important modernist churches only appeared in Europe and South America in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of them were designed by the most famous architects of the time, including Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, and were remarkably innovative. Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamps in eastern France, for instance, looks from some angles like a nun’s headdress.

In America, churches and synagogues were designed by famous modern architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, and Mies van der Rohe. These structures were always visually impressive, if occasionally impractical. (Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, built in 1904, looks from outside like an almost windowless pre-Columbian tomb in gray concrete, and the benches in its interior, though handsome, are as square and uncomfortable as most of his early furniture.) Many other architects followed this lead. Some, intoxicated by the possibilities of reinforced concrete, produced buildings that resembled fish, shells, flowers, breadboxes, and A-frame ski lodges. At first there was often resistance from congregations: people complained that the new structures “just did not look like churches.” Occasionally parishioners were persuaded by the argument that, as the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Walnut Creek, California (one of the breadboxes), put it, “contemporary design costs less.” Eventually some people became reconciled to this particular breadbox or even began to admire it; others, especially the older members of the congregation, left the church.

Today religious architecture takes many forms. A few traditional neocolonial, neofederalist, and neo-Gothic churches continue to be built; but most new churches, and almost all new synagogues, look modern—or, more often, postmodern, combining elements from many different traditions. Corinthian columns may support the semiclassical pediment of a church that otherwise resembles a big-box superstore, and pointed Gothic doors may appear on the flat end of a shingled A-frame building. Nowadays many of these structures are more readily identified as churches from the outside, though some still appear to be disguised as schools or corporation headquarters or medical clinics. Like the neomedieval churches, they match their environment. They are almost always consciously simple and functional, with an emphasis on natural materials—stone, plaster, wood, and brick—and pale natural colors—gray, white, tan, and faded red. The interiors tend to look rather empty, with high bare walls and windows that (unless the church is located in a landscape of considerable beauty) do not allow a view of the world outside.

The floors are usually no longer sloped as in a theater, and the pulpit and altar or communion table stand only a few steps above the rest of the room. It is not always possible to instantly identify the space as having a religious purpose, especially in the case of nonliturgical Protestant denominations. Usually there is a large plain cross somewhere, but it may be high on the wall or off to one side. At first glance, these church interiors often look like expensive concert …

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