Design: Creating for God's Glory

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Among the most active churches in the U.S. is the small and simple St. Peter's Lutheran 5 Church on Lexington Avenue in midtown Manhattan. St. Peter's, which opened in 1977, adorns the base of Hugh Stubbins Jr.'s 59-story Citicorp Center. Although it is not, strictly speaking, part of the Citicorp skyscraper, it too was designed by Stubbins and fits masterfully into his overall architectural vision. Stubbins' church holds its own at the foot of the somewhat brutish 915-ft. Citicorp tower. The church's uncluttered, skylit interiors were created by Vignelli Associates using natural colors and materials. Sculptor Louise Nevelson designed the church's small but exquisite Erol Beker Chapel of the Good Shepherd. St. Peter's is indeed a sanctuary in a cold and hectic city.

All three of these churches are pointing the way toward a vital new expression in religious architecture. In the recent past, religious leaders and architects often conceived of modern churches as "religious plants" to accommodate psychiatric counseling, Sunday-school rooms, party kitchens, banquet halls and diverse country-club facilities. The sanctuary, scheduled for the last phase in fund-raising drives, often never made it. Sometimes services were held in low-ceilinged, linoleum-floored "fellowship halls."

"The '60s were the years of Christian education, classrooms and playgrounds," says Architect David K. Cooper, 28, who designed the Salem Baptist Church, Orland Park, Ill., and St. John the Baptist Church in Winfield, Ill. "The '70s were the years of Christian fellowship and multiple-purpose meetingrooms. Now, in the '80s, it seems, the emphasis is on worship."

Cooper, who works for C. Edward Ware & Associates, with headquarters in Rockville, Ill., is fairly typical of the roughly 1,500 to 2,000 church architects practicing in the U.S. today. Ware employs 25 architects and draftsmen and designs about 20 churches a year, three times as many as five years ago. "Our clients are excited about the challenge of building a church and attracting more people," says Cooper. "Nowadays, congregations want to participate actively in the liturgy—to sing more, to move more, to celebrate. They don't want spaces that confine them merely to listening to the pulpit and organ. They want spaces that give them a sense of community and freedom."

Despite the current building slump, many church architects are very busy. Judith A. Miller, administrative assistant of the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture, a professional association of theologians and designers of religious institutions, points out, "They are designing small buildings on small budgets. Church and synagogue design is no longer a matter of architectural theatrics, but of economy and liturgy."

Congregations seldom take their architect's first inspiration as gospel any more. Building committees do much soul searching about their needs. To develop a building program, says Architect Pietro Belluschi, is often in effect "to explore our relationship with God and to search for an understanding of the nature of religion as an institution." Belluschi, dean emeritus of the School of Architecture and Planning at M.I.T., is famous for, among other things, his simple, reverent churches in Oregon.

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