Church architecture: creating environments for 'events of spirit'

Roger Kennedy, general head of the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, sits in his top-floor, wood-paneled office, with his hand resting on his silver hair, bushy eyebrows knitting and unknitting, and a leg flopped over the arm of his cushy chair. He is thinking about churches, American churches, buildings he has spent a life-time poking through and two years pouring into a massive, coffeetable book, "American Churches" (Crossroad Publishing, 1982).

It is not -- despite its building-by-building analysis -- an architecture book, or a "see-the-pretty-pictures-and-there's-a-bit-of-text-too" tomes that emerge with the Christmas season. Rather, as he says in the preface, the book focuses on "how churches were, and are, used for worship . . . how they have presented environments for events of the spirit."

We need those environments, says Mr. Kennedy, far more than God needs them. "We need a container for activity that is essential to us," he says, "especially the act of coming together to participate in liturgy -- in a communal rhythm -- that is central to our being." Religion, in his observation, needs a community for its practice: "There are such things as saints and hermits, but I've never met one."

And although these containers for the community come in every conceivable size, Kennedy dislikes massive buildings. "There's a point beyond which the bubble bursts," he says. He puts that point "where you can no longer see the wrinkles on the face of the furthest member of the congregation."

He thinks large church buildings -- cathedrals and the like -- are designed for "processionals. And perhaps we need our processionals," he says, though he is not convinced that such doings have "a lot to do with God. But there may be moments in a religious processional where we experience something extraordinary, " he says, comparing them to "the first act of 'Tosca.'" But is it religious? "I don't know," he says. "People have spoken of such moments as religious experiences."

He finds comfort, instead, in the typical American church shape, with its steeple and bells. The steeple, he says, dates back to 9th-century Europe, when peasants were constantly being sacked by one group or another, and watchtowers were put up to guard against invasion.

"The tower," which he says was gradually integrated into Gothic cathedrals and everyday churches, "meant safety" -- a symbolic meaning it still holds for suburban America. "Even people who don't go inside feel [the church's presence] in the community, and know there is a metronome in the universe which the church bell tolls. It permits us to fix a time and place in our daily lives."

Still, many of the churches he admires take a radically different shape, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's concrete Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., built for his own Unitarian congregation. Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer's St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., is another example, which works, Kennedy feels, because "the community really got to [Mr. Breuer]."

That phenomenon -- the "love affair between architect and community" -- is both rare and "thrilling, when it happens," Kennedy says. He points to another example -- Louis Kahn's Unitarian Church of Rochester, N.Y. -- which the book details in the architect's own words:

"From what I heard," Kahn says of his attempt to understand the "flavor" of the congregation he served, "I realized that the form aspect of their activity was bound around that which is Question . . . Question eternal." He began his plan with a "square center on which I placed a question mark . . . the sanctuary."

Another important aspect of the plan is the way Kahn brought in light through the deeply recessed windows and clerestory. "The intention," Kennedy writes, "is to modulate, to sculpt and vary the light, which was to Kahn not only the essence of architecture but of life itself."

Light, which Kennedy describes as "a set of heavily laden emotional properties," is one of many elements juggled in the building of a church. Decoding those elements, as he did for his book, involves looking into the obvious things that can sway the design -- like the national origins of the church members, the availability of materials, and the way "the organism forms its own shell," Kennedy says.

He explains: "Do they need processional space? Will the congregation gather at the feet of a sitting rabbi, or do you sit while he stands? Is he set up high? In the center of his people? Or do the people face each other, like the Quakers?"

The way a church is arranged also articulates its balance between using church as a refuge for the spirit and a place to keep the spiritual things pure, and church as an outpouring to the community. The tension between these two functions is "part of life -- you have to inhale and exhale," he says.

Great open churches, like St. Peter's in the Citicorp Center in New York, were built as a statement that they are "open to the community and welcoming persons to join in its life," Kennedy says. He thinks they depend on "strong, spiritual leaders" to maintain their spiritual purity.But he has noticed that "congregations that are exceedingly active and useful in the community tend to draw into little fortresses [at church] and refresh themselves."

Regardless of its shape, these "containers of community" fulfill what Kennedy sees as a real need. "Most of us require a physical manifestation of things that are of central concern. That's why we dance and sing and pray -- which are all part of the same thing," says the man who ponders environments for "events of the spirit."

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