02 June 2009

Earthbound and Heavenbound Religious Architecture

I spent last Friday afternoon up at the Guggenheim, walking through the new Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit--an experience I recommend highly. Wright was a true American genius, exuding a creativity and vision that was both soothingly humble and soaringly aspirational. Without a doubt the occasion of walking through the retrospective of his career inside the Guggenheim itself, which he designed, only heightens the time you spend there.

Nicolai Ouroussoff's review from the Times
is a helpful guide.

Paul Goldberger's review from the New Yorker is here.

My favorites, no surprises here, remain the houses he designed early in his career--those one finds primarily in Wisconsin and Illinois and Pennsylvania. The Prairie School stuff. I just love it. Growing up in Milwaukee, I have very fond memories of spending time at a friend's house which was designed by Wright; and each trip home over the years always occasions a drive past a few Wright favorites. It's just what I do to orient myself to that sense of being at home again--and it's remarkable how much, even from the outside, great architecture can do that to a person.

I thought of that in particular when looking at a comparison of Wright's houses of worship--his Oak Park Unity Temple, the Unitarian Church in Madison, Wisconsin, Beth Sholom Synagogue in Philadelphia and the Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Each has it's own unique characteristic while sharing Wright's skyward gaze, and therefore each was cause for a meditation on religious space and what it means.

In order:

The Unity Temple (1904-1906)

The Unitarian Church in Madison (1947)

Beth Sholom Synagogue in Philadelphia (1954-59)


Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa (1956)

By the fifties, Wright seemed to be exploring outer space, in contrast to his more earthbound aspirations of earlier decades, and one really sees that in the exhibit with the masterly architectural models of a few of these houses of worship. Whereas the Unitarian Church in Madison, rooted in the earth, also evokes hands praying heavenward, by the time one gets to the synagogue in Philadelphia and obviously the Greek Church in Wauwatosa, the concern moves exclusively skyward--Beth Sholom up toward both Sinai and the Starship Enterprise, with the Greek Church playing the role we used to assign it as kids driving past--a Flying Saucer.

Much of this was on my mind yesterday as I posted a question on my Facebook page: "Should the Synagogue have a green roof?" The responses were overwhelmingly in favor, a quick poll that demonstrated the power of this social networking tool but also responses that had me again thinking about Wright and the earthbound v. heavenbound religious visions of communities and their architects.

For a green roof on a synagogue arguably says, "We gather in this place fully cognizant of our Earth and our covenantal obligations to guard and protect it."

As we move forward in the ongoing work of repairing and re-visioning our synagogue spaces, the trip to the Guggenheim serves as an inspiring reminder that the various decades of the American religious era have produced varieties of aesthetic models for how one gathers in community and the ways in which space design forms ones perceptions of self, community and God.

A CBE trip to the Guggenheim for a tour and a conversation is my idea of a good time.

I wonder what you think?


Abby Overton said...

oh man i am so bummed that i am so far away. i would love this field trip.

Anonymous said...

sign me up. when? some sunday?

Ross said...

great idea, andy. i'm sending this to my friend nancy.