IN A COUNTRY which continues to describe itself as "under God," it is an arresting but perhaps not surprising notion that the social, political, economic and psychological history of America is inextricably embodied and reflected in the architecture of the nation's churches, synagogues and religious structures. Such is the history compellingly told and beautifully portrayed by Roger G. Kennedy--director of the National Museum of American History--in his book American Churches. Illustrating more than 100 selected churches and temples in 200 color and 60 black-and-white photographs, Kennedy tells not only the general story of "the children of light" in the New World, but also the stories of individual religious buildings and their architects.
The religious structures of Native Americans, at home and at one with their environment, displayed an awareness of harmony with nature and continuity with all creation, a sensed relationship which "struggles with a modern obsession with dominance, with causality, and with control." The Catholic missionaries from France and Spain, who came to convert the locals and propagate their faith, erected strongholds in the midst of a harsh and dangerous world, like the fortified sanctuaries in Europe. The "entrepreneurs" of the Middle Colonies, who traveled to the New World for economic reasons rather than in search of religious freedom, built churches in the Gothic mold to which they were accustomed with the materials at hand. The "Exile" Puritans and Separatists of New England, whose drive to settle was more religiously than economically motivated, eschewed the forms of Baroque (which smacked of Catholicism) and Gothic (which smacked of the established church back home), using indigenous materials to construct simple, plain and straightforward meeting- house churches, reflecting the ordered and theocentric life they chose to live in the "peaceable kingdom."
Such, at least, are some of the interminglings of life and architecture which Kennedy recounts. One cannot help wondering, however, if personnel was not as responsible for the buildings of the New England settlers as personal beliefs. The designers were shipbuilders, after all, not architects, and straightforward simplicity pretty much summed up their capability.
Kennedy's selection of churches and synagogues is exemplary, even if one might wish a substitution here and there. I was pleased to note the inclusion of E. Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. But I for one would have preferred to see the Mormon Tabernacle, an architectural marvel of acoustics where one can quite literally hear a pin drop, instead of the $18-million Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, site of Dr. Robert Shuller's TV ministry and a multi-windowed structure considered by many to be an expensive and massive "pane."
Lest I give the wrong impression, Kennedy's book is not to be viewed as a history of religious architecture, or even a history seen through the forms of religious structures. Rather he delves deeply into the psychology of religious building, seeking to grasp the emotional and spiritual dynamics between architect and community (or client). Kennedy insists that "the content, not the container, makes the building religious" and "what counts is the degree to which it (the building) reinforces religious feelings and actions." In designing a religious building, the architect or master builder "participates in creation . . . in the service of the community," and, in the interplay of design and exchange, he and the client are often "surprised by one another." The task of the master builder of a religious building, in Kennedy's quite eloquent view, begins in "fear" and "dread," bowing in reverence and awe before "the Mystery." And so it is, when we enter a religious structure, that "we can miss the joy of participation, if we do not feel a kinship with the artist, and we can miss the point if we do not understand that we are examining sacred activity, touched by the spirit of Mystery, and activated by its intervention."
As one who has designed more than 30 religious buildings, I suspect that Kennedy is more mesmerized by the Mystery than a great many architects and most building committees. Even if we grant his contention that all of the examples used in American Churches evidence such reverential creative interplay, there are a considerable number of religious structures which he has omitted; and the design of a great many of them has been inspired mostly by the less mysterious factors of building and maintenance costs, the need for roofs that don't leak, and a guarantee that the acoustics will be good.
To cite an example from my own work, I designed a Presbyterian church in a small community in upstate New York. The building committee consisted of the pastor who outlined his concept. The site was on a hill overlooking the town. The pastor had both a daylight and nocturnal concept. He wanted the edifice to convey the concept of the tent/tabernacle, which can be pitched or folded as need requires in pursuit of duty and witness. At night, he wanted the church to be a beacon to the surrounding community. I designed a church which looks somewhat like a tent, and, energy costs permitting, when the church is in use and lighted at night, it is indeed a quite visible beacon. The interplay between the client and myself was a successful and satisfactory alliance, but with a minimal infusion of "fear" and "dread."
Kennedy suggests that even such an architect as Frank Lloyd Wright "stood in awe" of his task of designing a religious building, citing his Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, as an example. In his autobiography Wright deals quite thoroughly with the interplay between the building committee and himself in the design of Unity Temple. Clearly Wright had a design concept in mind when he sat down with the committee, and he used a masterful parable to produce instant theological reorientation. The committee, surprised and converted by Wright's powers of persuasion, was still befuddled, asking, "How do we create such a building?" "That's why you have come to me," said Wright, and he bade them farewell, telling them to return at the appointed hour to see the plans. Without diminishing Wright's reverential appreciation of the challenge involved in this or any other task, I think standing in awe in the face of the Mystery is stretching it a bit.
The danger in canonizing the process of designing a religious building is that it results in an over-sanctification of the final product. Even though Kennedy describes the continuous process of creation as a combining and dissolving of materials in new ways, I think he tends to downplay the dissolution side of the equation. In an age of mobile people and changing neighborhoods, contemporary design of religious buildings should take into account their future fate and future use. If the content is of utmost importance in defining a building's "religiousness," the container should be designed with an eye toward its future usability when the congregation of the faithful leave, as well as to meet the immediate requirements and needs of the wider community. The polar opposite of creative dissolution or conversion, of course, is landmarking where bricks and mortar are not only viewed as sacred but are "decreed" to be so. The disastrous result of over-sanctification pits the religious community against the landmark theoreticians, forcing local congregations to seek legal recourse or government relief in freeing themselves from the upkeep demands of a "sanctified" building.
And yet, there is something quite important to be said for Kennedy's glorification of the creative process. As I was preparing this review, I called a building friend and colleague in the Midwest. He began immediately to extol the marvels and virtues of a new computer he had just purchased, which is able to spew forth in an instant all levels of blueprint or design. Perhaps the day is already at hand when the interplay of creativity is simply programming a building committee's desires into a computer. What happens to reverence and awe as an architect bows deferentially before the keyboard? And how many aspiring young artists are displaced in the process? Perhaps this is the real source of "fear" and "dread." CAPTION: Picture 1, San Francisco de Asis, in Taos New Mexico built in 1805, photo (c) Copyright by Chad Slattery/After-Image; Picture 2, Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs Arkansas, (c) Copyright by Greg Hursley.