General 5-19-2004

Book Review: The Forms Belief Takes

As part of our upcoming emphasis on public art and architecture, Dean Seal reviews a book recently published by University of Minnesota Press on church architecture.

Churches of Minnesota: An Illustrated Guide,
by Alan K. Lathrop. Photography by Bob Firth
University of Minnesota Press. 296 pages, 128 halftones, 13 color photos 8” x
10” $29.95

How would you sample 5,000 churches in Minnesota in one book? Prof. Alan
Lathrop of the University of Minnesota toils in the Northwest Architectural
Archives, so he is adept at categorizing. He picked these churches “solely for
their visual appeal, architectural significance, structural integrity, and
historical importance.” He intends this to be an introduction to the variety of not
just buildings but also the faith traditions that support them.

This book is a pleasant treasure trove of surprises. I was surprised,
for example, at how many astounding and beautiful churches exist in the
mid-sized towns outstate. Central Methodist in Winona, Zion Lutheran in Albert Lea,
and the Catholic Church of St. Augustine in Austin all come to mind as sterling
examples of beauty in the built environment, identifiable to their faith
traditions of architecture and yet excelling in their execution. They are palaces
of uplift, designed to inspire anyone of any faith who sees them.

The next surprise was the diversity of designs demonstrated by our faith
traditions. We know that 90% of Minnesota is claimed by either the Catholic of
Lutheran faiths. But the range of styles within these two mainstays is
significant. There is also a preponderance of Episcopal churches utilized in the
book, due to the innovative work of the infamous Bishop Henry Whipple, who
engaged many different architects in his effort to pepper the Northwest with
chapels. And the presence of Ukrainian, Greek and Russian Orthodox onion domes on the
prairie is an awesome sight.

The final pleasant surprise was in the stories. Some are sad, as when a
church slowly loses its congregation. Others are interesting, because of
schisms that break open and then heal over time, returning a split church to its
original home. There is one church, the Lenora Methodist Church, which has become
a Pioneer Center because it has been kept in its original state, a
wood-burning stove in the back and everything. This book is a great survey of the
evolution of our young state’s culture.

I was shocked at my own reaction to the modern churches being presented.
None of them seemed welcoming, or at home, or specific to the place, as much
as the old ones. Looking at interior pictures of the sanctuaries leaves me with
the same feeling. In the modern designs, these are rooms and buildings that
only an architect could love, and the architect would only love it in the
abstract. There is nothing human, nothing invested of hand labor. The modern ones
look like atriums or conference halls in a large office complex.

Call me old-fashioned.

The book concludes with a list of other churches they could not include,
as well as a list of architect’s biographies, which makes for great reading
for the more geeky of us architect buffs.

I am grateful for the large format, which does justice in showing
the exterior architectural styles . My quibbles, however, are about the layout.
I wished for more interior shots. The ones available made much more of an
impression of how beautiful or how stark a design was, than just an exterior shot
can do. The formatting of the large picture on the left and the text on the
right could have allowed for a one-third sized shot of the insides on the text

Also, the descriptions could consistently include how many seats a church
has. It tells actual size and renders the mind a certain template of human
scale. It tells how many people were there at a full service, and would also be
the basis for comparison.

But those aware small technical faults to what I hope is the first of a series. Lathrop said he could do a single volume on the churches of the Twin Cites, which are barely represented here (Central Lutheran? Temple Israel? House of Hope?). If he could cover what is left on his list of recommended sites, that could be valuable. Some congregations are shrinking, and their churches are becoming more like community centers. An examination of space usage included would make this a valuable resource for brainstorming for churches who want to use their places for outreach, for a small second income, or for changing
the mission of the church by changing the direction of the building.

This is a good start on a very ripe, current topic. Let’s see more.