Design: Creating for God's Glory

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Church architects are turning out striking new buildings

During most of the post—World War II era, offices, apartments and even billboards have dwarfed church steeples. In response, religious buildings have frantically vied for attention with bizarre bell towers, frenzied A-frames and strange paraboloids. But until recently, few churches have managed to convey a religious quality beyond that of a contorted steeple or a neon JESUS SAVES sign.

All that seems to be undergoing considerable change. Many church architects are now producing more exciting work than colleagues who are straining to overcome the discredited, bare and square look of modern office towers and apartment houses. "If you had to pick a single piece of decent architecture that could rightfully be called post-modern," says William Houseman, editor of Architecture Minnesota, "the Colonial Church of Edina, Minn., might well be it."

The Colonial Church, on the outskirts of Minneapolis, was designed by Architect Richard F. Hammel, 58, of Hammel Green Abrahamson, Inc., a Minneapolis-based firm. "Designing religious buildings is arduous," says Hammel. "It took six years of discussions and hard work with the congregation and its pastor, Dr. Arthur Rouner Jr., to achieve a harmonious understanding of the function and meaning of their church. But it is wonderful work, because something other than dollars is valued. You are designing for the celebration of human life."

The church, which opened in 1979, is a kind of mini-village on a 22-acre site along a man-made lake. It consists of a meetinghouse or sanctuary that seats 1,000, a freestanding tower, a parlor for small weddings and other assemblies, a social hall, a youth center and a library with staff offices. It was conceived in the Pilgrim and Puritan tradition of early New England churches, but its form is traditional only in that the white-trimmed gray clapboard and spire convey a sense of historic continuity. The architecture is closer to the modern simplicity of Mies van der Rohe than the baroque intricacy of Sir Christopher Wren.

Another enchanting example of contemporary architecture is also religious—the 22-month-old Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Ark. It is one of the most popular and widely publicized of new American buildings. The secluded chapel, which seats about 130, won an award for excellence from the American Institute of Architects and was sought out last year by 120,000 visitors. Noting its striking qualities, the A.I. A. Journal says, "It is a building of great integrity."

At once familiar and novel, the chapel was built for wayfarers rather than a resident congregation. No larger than a tall barn, it stands at the bend of a wooded trail, high in the Ozark Mountains. An almost transparent structure of mostly timber and glass, it seems to be one with the surrounding woods and rocks. The chapel's architect, E. Fay Jones of Fayetteville, Ark., who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, describes it as a kind of reversal of gothic cathedral architecture. The trusses inside the structure form a repetitive, rhythmic lattice pattern as evocative as a Bach fugue.

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