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In an Internet of endless clickbait, an article promising “Divine Photos of America’s Most Epic Churches” threatens to be just another BuzzFeed list of Worst Celebrity Facelifts, only more uplifting. But the piece, in Wired, features stunning photography by Christoph Morlinghaus, so it’s worth a look whether you care for the churches or not.
Are they the most epic churches in America? Some, like the amazing First Presbyterian Church (Stamford, Conn., designed by Wallace K. Harrison), are without a doubt. This Modernist church bears favorable comparison with my favorite building in the world, La Sainte Chappelle. If all Modern buildings were this nice, I’d have to surrender my curmudgeon card.
Others, although they are staples of 20th-century architecture history courses, are far less than epic. Among these is the Kramer Chapel (Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., designed by Eero Saarinen). Little more than a concrete tent, the stacked hymnals are the most interesting thing in Morlinghaus’ photo. In the same category is The First Christian Church (Columbus, Ind., designed by Eliel Saarinen, Eero’s father).
But then one encounters the unarguable sublimity of the United States Air Force Academy Chapel (Colorado Springs, Colo., by Walter Netsch). With its nave and organ, this is easily Netsch’s best work and one of the great buildings in America in the last (or any) century. All in all, modernism, as interpreted by Morlinghaus in these photos, is clearly a mixed bag.
What is the Christian nature of these spaces? The better ones, among which I include the Crystal Cathedral (Garden Grove, Calif., by Philip Johnson and John Burgee), point toward transcendence and take worshippers’ minds out of the mundane to a different plane of existence. This, surely, ought to be part of any right-thinking church’s mission statement. The more homely resemble concrete bunkers that pull down more than they lift up.
The better spaces point toward transcendence.
Are these churches overly expensive? Some, like the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption (San Francisco, Calif., by Peitro Belluschi, John Michael Lee, Paul A. Ryan and Angus McSweeney), were very costly. But I have never bought the argument that places of worship were subject to the same economics as strip malls and office buildings (though far too many have been built on strikingly similar budgets).
Others, like the astonishing Thorncrown Chapel (Eureka Springs, Ark., by E. Fay Jones), were built on a shoestring budget, yet are spaces that almost transcend architecture altogether. So a church doesn’t have to be expensive to be great, but greatness on a budget is a much harder thing to pull off.
Are these “epic” churches just testimonies to architects’ egos? I’m inclined to say not, especially the best of them. These buildings may bring fame to their authors, but they bring glory to the authors’ Author.
One building in the bunch seems designed to magnify only the architect’s reputation: the grim and depressing Mariendom (Neviges, Germany, by Gottfried Böhm). This Piranesian nightmare of cast-in-place concrete seems dedicated to a religion entirely apart from Christianity - something called Formism, perhaps. It proves that given free reign and an unlimited budget, some architects are capable of perfect awe - or perfect awfulness.
Morlinghaus’ tastes aside, a true survey of America’s most epic churches would surely want to include at least a few in the classical (or Gothic) style, such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City or the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Many others could be named as well, including Los Angeles’ Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. Happily, church architecture is not dead, even if a brief cruise along most cities’ perimeter interstates might lead one to think it was at least on life support.