Placing the Sacred:
Reflections on Contemporary American Church Architecture
LOUIS P. NELSON
From the often stark landscapes of southern California rise many remarkable monuments, but perhaps none as striking as the Crystal Cathedral. Rising one hundred thirty feet in the air, the building is a startling employment of ten thousand panes of mirrored glass reflecting the bright California sun. The acute angles of its exterior and its glimmering surface bring to mind otherworldly and fantastic associations, like something from Disney or Oz. On the interior, the hard exterior surfaces dissolve into a spectacular array of refracted lights dancing around the enormous diamond-shaped auditorium (fig. 2). Completed in 1980, the building was and remains a unique experiment in American church architecture. Seating almost three thousand people in addition to the one-thouand-voice choir, the building comes alive each Sunday for the thousands in the seats and the millions who tune into Robert Schuller’s Sunday morning Hour of Power.
To design a building to house his rapidly expanding church, Schuller initiated an unlikely relationship with the renowned architect Philip Johnson because he believed that traditional church designs were “unconsciously seeking to impress those who were raised in a churchinstead of trying to design a structure that would make an impression on non-churched, secular Americans.”1 But this was not Shuller’s first opportunity to work with a prominent Modernist. For an earlier church Shuller hired Richard Neutra in 1962. In the mode of late International Modernism, the building’s cleanly articulated materials and crisp volumes certainly captured the eye of the 1960s passerby. By abandoning visual references to the traditional American churchthese were hardly brick boxes with white steeplesShuller’s commissions are typical of megachurch construction in the late twentieth century.2
The canonical example of the megachurch is Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago (fig. 3). The building sits comfortably in its suburban context. Man-made lakes with single fountain jets, and nondescript architecture devoid of any legible referents to traditional church architecture, do little to differentiate Willow Creek from a shopping mall or a corporate park. Exteriors are marked by acres of parking, differentiated into color-coded lots. The building’s main entrances are not prominent; darkened glass doors give access to atriums with clusters of sofas, tables, and chairs, interspersed with ficas trees. Surrounding these atriums are food courts that offer the best of McDonalds and Starbucks, and bookstores that carry everything from inspirational literature to Jesus action figures. Willow Creek’s auditorium is similarly devoid of any explicitly Christian iconography. Banks of theatre seats slope toward the stage as in any large-scale public performance venue. In the words of one megachurch pastor, “Rather than dealing with the hereafter, we deal with what it means to be here right here and now.”3 The result, of course, is quite consciously an architecture that speaks to the quotidian, the everyday of American suburban life. In this way Shuller’s Crystal Cathedral is quite distinctive. While Shuller may have consciously avoided referents to traditional church architecture, his Modernist buildings still communicate that the building is special, distinctive, set apart from the landscape. Conversely, most megachurches embrace an architecture analogous toshopping malls, corporate centers, sports arenasthe American everyday.
Born in the 1960s to evangelize the baby-boomers, the megachurch epitomizes the Christian embrace of American popular culture. With campuses approximating shopping malls or corporate headquarters, it is touted by proponents as a radical new church model that has manifested a new architectural vocabulary in American evangelicalism. When defined as buildings of worship containing two thousand or more members, there were only ten such buildings in America in 1970. Their great expansion occurred in the 1980s, when their numbers rose to four hundred. While this was still only two percent of the total number of churches in America, it was clearly the fastest growing church type in the landscape.4 By the 1980s megachurches were commonly seating from three to four thousand, and some as many as ten thousand. They now commonly breach fifteen thousand. Among America’s largest churches, with twenty-five thousand attending weekly, Lakewood Community Church in Houston, Texas, has successfully transformed the Compaq Centerthe former arena of the Huston Rocketsinto its new church campus. The seventy-five million dollar Lakewood International Center includes an ice-skating rink, a dining and retail plaza, two hundred thousand square feet of classrooms, a convention center, an international broadcast and production studio, and a sixteen-thousand-seat worship center with stage and orchestra pit flanked by continuous waterfalls.5
The megachurch is the major contribution to American church architecture of the late twentieth century, and is on that criterion alone a topic worthy of study by historians, clergy, and architects. One strategy might be to examine the architects who design these buildings, and the pastors for whom they work. But I want to argue that much is to be learned by studying these buildings as signals of the identity of the congregations they house. Rather than a top-down model, I’d like to explore what American church architecture might reveal about the person in the pew. And I’d like to frame the megachurch historically as an outworking of mainstream American evangelicalism.
Consider the megachurch as the third of three acts. In each act I’d like to contextualize American church architecture, and examine the extent to which churches are a response to the social, political, and cultural circumstances that have shaped American Protestantism. The opening scene of this story will focus on American church architecture of the last turn-of-the-century, the looming Romanesque churches of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cities. Next we will move to mid-century and look at the architecture of the 1950s, those colonial revival and Modernist churches which comprise the majority of churches in America. And finally we will return to reconsider the megachurch in light of these recent pasts.
The Late Nineteenth Century
Our first act opens at the end of the nineteenth century, specifically in the 1880s and 1890s. These decades were a season of remarkable tensions in American culture broadly and in American Christianity more specifically. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century most mainline Protestant denominations had split into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery. In the third quarter of the nineteenth century, Christianity was confronted with the scientific and intellectual challenges to biblical history posed first by the science of geology, and then by Darwin’s Origins of the Species, initiating debates that threatened to secularize American culture. Americans also witnessed the explosive growth of cities largely through Eastern European immigration. Not only did these immigrants bring with them alternative Christian expressions, but they also exacerbated the problems of the city: illiteracy, poverty, unsanitary conditions, and overcrowding. Social and economic unrest came to a head in the 1890s. In 1893, the country was rocked by an economic depression followed by the Pullman strikes in 1894. For many Americans, these were dark days. Contemporary observers suggest that these decades were, if not anti-religious, at the very least a-religious.
But, as the historian Jeane Kilde has shown, these same decades witnessed the emergence of a grand new church building type. Unlike the classically styled buildings of the Antebellum years or the Gothic Revival of the mid-century Oxford Movement, these new buildings embraced the Romanesque. Usually articulated in a heavy rusticated stone, the walls of these churches broke from the traditional forms of earlier buildings. The churches are characterized by low, stocky, central towers, steeply pitched roofs, and sequences of arcades enclosing large, comfortable auditorium interiors. Kilde has identified hundreds of evangelical congregations who erected buildings in this mode, “creating” she asserts, “a veritable revolution in Protestant architecture in the closing decades of the century.”6
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