Sunday, June 27, 2010

more about buildings

On June 17 I posted a blog - Context Is Everything, with an interesting video from David Byrne where he talks about architecture and music... I raised some questions regarding architecture and theology. Today we had an interesting experience of architecture and theology not working well together. We visited First Christian Church in Phoenix. It is a large, lively congregation, very involved in mission in its community and around the world. I don't think I would attend there (that is another post), but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the church to someone for whom it would fit.
Their building is a stunning place, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is clearly one of his buildings - relatively low ceilings, heavy stone walls, beautiful stained glass used in a way that doesn't allow too much of the beastly hot Phoenix sun into the building. If you go to the website, you'll see that a pipe organ is integrated into the design of the worship space. It looks as if it was originally built for a wealthy mainline congregation (I believe they are Disciples of Christ although I couldn't find that information anywhere on their website). I think I saw a stone indicating the building was constructed in 1972.
The building is stunning and clearly represents the architect's idiosyncratic vision. There is an intellectual side to his buildings that pushes one outside of their comfort zones and calls you to think about space, its meaning, and its use. For those reasons, it felt to me like it wanted a formal, liturgical service. Or maybe a Taize style service. It screams that what happens in those walls is the center of the life of its congregation.
The service was a typical evangelical, big church style service - lots of use of media (notice in the photo on their website that two screens are shoe-horned in, probably in front of pipes of an organ that likely sits unused), a reasonably good band (although it wasn't as balanced or as loud as I would have liked), casual dress on those who led worship and a a friendly, informal style. There were lots of pointers to their community service and the central theme was to report back about a recent mission trip to Kenya. It felt as if the worship service was not at the center of their church life, that would be found in their mission and in small group life.
Finally, it was clear that First Christian Church is not allowing the building to impede its ministries... but it just didn't feel to me like the two fit together.


Michael Mahoney said...

Very interesting post. I was dubious about the pedigree of the building, as FLW died in 1959, but found an article explaining how the plans were drawn in the forties for a defunct seminary.

The building was actually built by First Christian in the 70s. Looks like they have undergone a metamorphosis of sorts. I'm wondering if their building hasn't become a bit of a "nehushta" to them.

roy said...

Michael, I wondered about the date as well... I wasn't sure when he died, but I thought he was gone before '72.
The church was founded in '52 (again, from a stone in the building). It would be interesting to see whether he had a relationship with them of one sort or another while he was alive. Taliesin West is located outside of Phoenix. Fascinating place...
back to the building, it would present an interesting dilemma to a congregation. How can you sell a FLW building? Or worse yet, change it? But what if it is an albatross... and if you don't want to leave your community... interesting questions