A Last Long Look at American Sacred Architecture

by Ethan Anthony, appearing in Volume 9

During the last five years I have had the great good fortune to be the agent for a last long look at American sacred architecture. My opportunity came as the result of my attempt to save the architecture firm of Ralph Adams Cram.

Twelve years ago I merged my incipient architecture practice with the remnant of the Cram firm. At the time I was astonished to learn that the firm, an icon of the Victorian era, had survived over a century and through the entire period of modernism and post modernism without losing its essential character. I also found myself wondering how it was possible that I had completed architectural school without hearing about the firm, its founder or their work.

As I began to look at the firm and its 100-year body of work, other questions soon followed. How had I graduated from architecture school without studying religious buildings? Why was it that my study of monasteries and cathedrals had been on my own after architecture school? Why had it been the credo of the schools I attended that it was unnecessary to study the past beyond Corbusier or Kahn or Rossi. Why had study of masters been replaced by the mirror-like self-fascination of the study of magazines?

Of course, none of these changes had been accidental. During the internationalist ascendancy the study of historical periods, styles and orders was replaced in most American architectural schools with the study of modernist examples to support the faculty’s contention that architectural change was legitimate and current and compelling.

And it was not just religious architecture or Roman and Gothic historical precedents that were discarded but also Frank Lloyd Wright (for his immorality) Green and Green (for the lack of interest in handmade things) and every other craft-oriented architect.

To understand the architecture of the time we also need to remember the principles of the modernist era. This was the time of the Italian modernists with their manifestos of the liberation of the working classes through machines. And we heard its echoes here in America. Machinery would liberate us to have greater and greater amounts of free time. We would have the enviable problem of finding leisure activities to fill our idle hours.

Machines were going to liberate men from the drudgery of handwork. Futurists actually imagined a time when our hands and other extremities would atrophy through generations of disuse. Only the brain and organs of sense would survive.

During the heady war boom years of the 1960s, Paolo Soleri imagined an America built of mega-structures that would each house ten thousand in luxury apartments built over floors of automated factories that would produce all the necessities of life quietly below with no human participation. The dwellers above would fill their idle hours in making wind chimes, doorknobs, and other craft items to enrich their apartments with spiritually full items.

Of course the boom years were followed by the oil shock and in.ation decade and the Vietnam defeat, all of which served to bring such empty dreams to an abrupt end. Since then architecture has been in a thirty-year funk. Struggling to find a proper expression for the age, for the nation and for the world, indeed for the era that has followed. Unfortunately for architecture this has been an era as devoid of cultural advance and creativity as the previous era was full. The seventies and eighties were a last dying reflection of the excitement of the fifties and sixties, and the nineties as we now know were the bursting of the bubble.

In the late forties and early fifties a few churches established the paradigm of modernist religious architecture. Corbusier's Ronchamp, Sarrinnen's Yale whale, and Wright’s Unitarian churches. These became the models followed by the few architects who designed the very few churches that were built after World War II that attempted to build well-designed and thoughtful structures. Perhaps more importantly they were soon adopted by "design-builders" who incorporated inexpensive space-making qualities and discarded the humanizing details and glazing for aluminum storefront and large expanses of empty walls.

In the pre-World War II generation many .ne churches of traditional design and relatively expensive high quality materials had been built. In that era (roughly from 1900-1940) the popular mind accepted the concept that it was desirable to commit a high level of resources to the church as an expression of the community’s devotion. The postwar generation adopted a different ideology. New churches built after the war were seen as a financially burdensome problem to be solved as inexpensively as possible.

As a result it was easy for postwar congregations to agree that light entering the building from a skylight above was a symbolic expression of God's presence replacing more concrete and expensive representations such as stained glass and sculpture. The arts thus finally for the first time in America could be excluded from the religious space. As the mother of the arts, architecture's exclusion of the arts from religious expression resulted in a reaction in the arts itself. The arts no longer looked to religion as a source of inspiration, and soon art was looking everywhere else: inside itself and in popular culture that blossomed into the void left by religion's decline as a client.

And this about sums up the situation we find ourselves in at the beginning of the third millennium. Church building has descended to mere auditorium design, empty barns suggestive of illusive nebulous ideas reliant on electronic screens and powerful sound systems as replacements for stained glass and great buildings and art for the television generation. Religious art and architecture are in atrophy with little exemplary work in either produced for the religious institutions of our time.

The Reaction

Many of the architects in my own generation have reacted against the dominant modernist paradigm almost from the start. The first real expression of this reaction was known as postmodernism and led by Peter Blake, Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, and Robert Stern. Responding to their students' protests against the dominant paradigm during the seventies, these three postmodernists provided vital articulation of the protest against the loss of humanism that resulted from modernism and the technology culture.

The first step in restoring principles to architecture was to create space for new paradigms by destroying the credibility and removing the current paradigm from its pedestal. This work was done by Peter Blake and others by questioning the legitimacy of modernism and techno-culture. With his book on modernism he exposed the weak philosophical underpinnings and inconsistencies underlying much modernist work.

The second stage of the reaction to modernism was the resurrection and cultural rehabilitation of art and architectural history. Postmodern architects looked back at the remaining examples of traditional architecture that had not been destroyed during the modernist period and began to find pieces and parts to "quote" in their own work. The discovery was exemplified by Robert Venturi in Learning from Las Vegas and the mannerist re-use by Moore in Ray Smith's SuperMannerism and by Stern in his work.

The current situation in the mainstream of architecture — which one would hardly guess from glancing through the typical architectural magazine — is that traditional forms and styles are back in an enormous wave that has swept across the nation while the magazine editors and "architectural critics" have been pushing alien forms and complaining that no one is following their leadership. As in the 1930s critics say that the mainstream consumer of architecture needs to be led and is incapable of choosing the environment he or she wants.

Where do American churches fit in this great debate about form in architecture? Churches come late to this argument, in large part due to conditions beyond their control. Just ten short years ago most mainline denomination churches I visited complained that their congregations had shrunk to the point that they could hardly afford to maintain their buildings. Many disappeared altogether in the decades of the seventies and eighties. Though the nineties had accomplished a change that reversed the situation.

During the 80s the baby-boom generation began to age into its thirties and forties and raise children. Many parents wanted to have their children educated about religion and spirituality by a church, sometimes but not always the church of their own upbringing. This brought families back to the church and swelled church memberships across the nation. For churches with older buildings this meant finding the means to begin to address the long neglected repair and maintenance of their buildings and this led to many fine restorations and renovations.

Congregations that have grown rapidly have been returning to a building mode for the first time in five decades. The resulting buildings of this new church boom have been largely negative to this time, though a few points of light can be found.

We can understand church architecture of the current era if we see it as separated in four main categories: Barns, Flying Saucers, Regional Styles, and Revivals.


Some denominations build pre-engineered steel sheds more typical of factory, supermarket, or agricultural architecture. They are inexpensive to build and require a relatively small investment per seat. It is unnecessary to address the usually undesirable "aesthetics" of this type of building because these churches have opted out of the architectural discussion about religious art and architecture. As such they do not matter and we hope will be torn down soon and replaced by a building that will show us the true feelings of the congregation about themselves and their God.

Flying Saucers

These churches, typical of Baptist and more recently Southern Catholic churches, are the logical extension of the barn form. Necessarily gigantic for reasons of marketing or clerical coverage, an attempt is sometimes made to dress up the barn but the essential realities remain. They are exploded formless, barren, and cold caverns with regrettable acoustics and a total lack of imagination. These buildings are intentionally kept cheap as they are seen as disposable. Music is impossible in these buildings without powerful artificial reinforcement.

Modernist and Postmodern (Regional Styles)

A few mainline denominations spared the need for very large spaces in recent decades but needing to build nonetheless have requested and received passable but pedestrian church buildings designed by architects with neither experience in nor passion for religious architecture. These architects typically have practices that are predominantly in other building types but are given the commission for other reasons. They are community leaders or members of the congregation whose practice may be in banks, schools, or railroad stations, and the results have usually been recognizable as an example of their signature work in those forms. While the quality of the architecture may be debated on its own merits, it fundamentally misses the point. It is a personal exercise and not a participant in the great discourse on the expression of religion in architecture. In this sense they do not matter.


This final category in which I personally have practiced, I list last because it has surfaced most recently chronologically and in my view is the highest and best phase of recent developments in church architecture. It is my opinion that development in this area of religious design has the greatest promise for leading to the next higher stage of religious design.

Revivals have grown out of the need for congregations to rebuild either from a fire or from a cataclysmic event in the life of the congregation. In this category I would include congregations that have split over differences of principle and viewpoint.

These buildings also have resulted when a congregation has approached the building process with a clear understanding of the meaning that is enshrined in a building and has been willing to sacrifice in the sense of paying more per seat to have a building that has real meaning inherent within it.

These traditional buildings are more costly per seat than the three previous categories, but the congregations that take on this challenge have a heightened awareness of the importance of the spiritual content of the building and a determination to express their beliefs in the architecture; this is especially important. In our culture, which has been sold on throw away and disposable plates, cups, cars, and culture, an institution that intends to be lasting has an opportunity in building to leave a lasting marker of the community that raised the money and had the vision to build the building.

Throw-away barns, alien flying saucers, and even regional but non-religious forms are inadequate and inarticulate as church buildings.

A Word about Revivals

Finally a word about the work we have been engaged in these last ten years. It has been my great good fortune to participate in the birth of three great new Gothic churches. They have been the first true Gothic churches since the Second World War. Our ability to create these essentially medieval monuments has grown directly out of our work over the past decade restoring and renovating a group of churches designed by Ralph Adams Cram and his firm, designers of some of the finest churches America has ever produced.

In our work in modern times, both in relation to repairing and restoring the churches Cram and his craftsmen built so lovingly and in building a new church meant to look and feel like those Cram and his craftsmen built, we have had no such background to which to turn.

More than fifty years have passed since Cram built his last churches and the workmen who once made the hinges, doors, and windows of those fine buildings have long ago retired. Mechanized production has replaced the loving creation of handcraft, and new sophisticated hand tools have changed the processes.

The aesthetics of architecture have changed to adapt to the new capabilities in part because of the in.uence of both American industry and its handmaiden, the magazine publishers, and in part because of the influence of the Bauhaus through Harvard and IIT. Architecture has undergone a fifty-year process of adapting to mass production and standardization, and we have come to a point where instead of architects designing individual creative responses to formal challenges we have architects largely choosing pre-designed parts from catalogs. Modern architects have become shoppers.

Because of this change it has been extremely challenging to begin to take a fresh approach to architecture again. Rather than using a tired set of standardized parts in a sterile formal exercise, as touted by Corbusier with his modular strangely based on the height of the average French policeman, we have been taking a fresh look at the design of environment for work, worship, and for study.

This has sometimes meant not only looking anew at the environment and our response but inventing new language for describing it, because after all language can be so defining that use of existing language becomes a confinement in itself.

In the design of a Gothic church this has presented itself as re-learning the old language, which really is learning a new language for the modern. If first one learns anew what a vault, pier choir, retro-choir, reredos, voussoir, and buttress is, one then will inevitably begin to think about design in an entirely different way. The tiresome arguments over the choice of a basis for a standard unit, over alternation of squares or rectangles in a pattern, or the deep inner meaning of geometric forms and shafts of light seem utterly mute when stood next to a great Gothic building with its myriad parts all with a long tradition and a strange internal beauty.

The creation may begin with the creation of spaces and their subdivision into structural bays and vaulted sub-spaces. There follows placement of familiar forms; columns and arches, windows and frames, beams and vaults. Finally there are finishing touches, paneling, and paving. And in all there is attention to the quality of the detail, the hand touches. No longer need we fear the personal touch of the craftsman, for it is welcome here as a mark of its internal dignity and worth.

I have looked back to the original many times in now six trips to Europe in the last five years and in extensive research in our firm archives as well as in reading the original works Cram himself read and cited in his extensive writings. This process has led me to an understanding of many fundamental starting points for the Gothic building and an internal ability to work within the style. As extensive and thorough as this research has been, it has been only a beginning because we in fact are not building in medieval times and must adapt everything we want to accomplish to modern times, methods and cost realities.

This has meant that, strange as it may sound, the modern builder in medieval forms has to invent everything anew. Paradoxically there is far more inventiveness in attempting a Gothic building than in the modern building that now can and often is ordered almost entirely from a catalog. This has been the difficulty and the great excitement of building in this revival style. Finally it will also be the genesis of a new stylistic adventure as industry and human innovation catches up with us and increasingly offers the parts and pieces we need to do this work in catalogs. In this way the form will be easier to produce and the idea will spread far beyond the few initial churches that we have had the great good fortune to design.