Thinking outside the Godbox

LDSConfCenterOne of Slate’s greatest strengths, since its days under founding editor Michael Kinsley, is to match a topic with the ideal author. Slate comes close to perfection in asking Witold Rybczynski, professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, to evaluate the design of megachurches.

Rybczynski’s thoughts come in 10 extended captions to large, color-rich photos of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Willow Creek Community Church (the godfather of most nondenominational megachurches) in the Chicago suburbs, the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City (pictured), the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles and Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.

To his credit, Rybczynski begins by identifying megachurch as a putdown, and he challenges the label by including Our Lady of Angels on the list.

His point that Willow Creek does not look like a church has been around for a few decades now, at least among readers familiar with church-design debates, but these sentences are rewarding:

The 4,550-seat sanctuary — it’s actually called the Main Auditorium — of Willow Creek . . . appears to have good sightlines, excellent audiovisual facilities, and comfortably wide aisles for moving around in. But inspiring it’s not. It’s the architectural equivalent of the three-piece business suit that most nondenominational pastors favor.

Rybczynski sees the LDS Conference Center as an example of “the influence megachurches have had on mainstream religions,” which is strange. To be sure, the interior of the LDS Conference Center looks much like the interior of Willow Creek, but it’s a conference center, not a church sanctuary set aside for weekly worship services.

The LDS parallel to Willow Creek is not a meeting hall that also functions as a community center, but any of the larger-than-life temples that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has constructed for decades. Those temples are open only to LDS members once they are dedicated, and (as I first heard from my friend Mark Kellner) some of their rooms feel like the lobbies of higher-end Marriott hotels. Outside, though, they are distinctive and unquestionably religious in style. (While churches such as Willow Creek omit steeples and crosses, you’ll never find an LDS temple without a golden statue of the angel Moroni.)

Further, in a nation dominated by Protestants, Willow Creek is the mainstream while LDS would be countercultural — unless mainstream becomes a synonym for “religions founded more than a century ago.” (One exception that’s gaining momentum: Some liberal Protestants now agree with the LDS idea of continuing revelation, especially when it reverses biblical revelations that they reject.)

These are quibbles, however, with a piece that should gladden the heart of anyone who appreciates clever writing about contemporary church design. Here is Rybczynski’s withering critique of the cathedral in Los Angeles:

The bright interior of Our Lady of the Angels is a modern version of a traditional church. But the wooden ceiling is a poor substitute for a fan vault, just as the alabaster panels in the windows have none of the numinous quality of stained glass. The 100-foot-tall nave, which holds 2,600 people, feels squat rather than soaring. The artworks attached to the walls, presumably intended to humanize the architecture, feel makeshift, as if the large space were originally designed for some other function and had been converted into a sanctuary. This busy and confusing interior points to the peril of trying to “update” a traditional architectural idiom. It’s as hopeless as translating Shakespeare into hip-hop.

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  • Calee Lee

    When I stumbled onto the Slate article this morning, I was thrilled to see someone actually looking at megachurch architechture. One of the things I’ve noticed is that we now build our churches for the crowd to focus on the pastor (seating in the round, large projection screens, a single pulpit on a huge stage.) In centuries past, churches were built to focus the congregation on God. Architecture has more to do with worship than most Christians like to acknowledge and unfortunantly, excepting the Crystal Cathedral, the largest churches in the country aren’t using their buildings to glorify anyone but those on stage.

  • Joseph LeBlanc

    Are we sure that the term ‘megachurch’ is a put down? I know many use it in that sense, but I also know almost as many who would embrace the term. I also knew of one person claiming to be training for his career as a ‘megaminister’ (this is evidently a step up from merely being the pastor of a megachurch).

  • Andy Crouch

    I find it very difficult to trust the observational skills of someone who thinks that non-denominational pastors favor three-piece suits. Huh??? Has this guy been to a non-denominational church service since 1987?

    Also, Mormons will be happy to be called a “mainstream religion” (as if evangelical Protestantism weren’t mainstream at this point), but it’s really no surprise that Mormonism is borrowing from evangelical church architecture, as the two movements have a lot in common, sociologically speaking.

  • Micah Weedman

    Aren’t Osteen (from Lakewood, in the slideshow, whose face is everywhere) and Shuler typically wearing business suits?

    And I think he probably means that megachurch is a put down for, you know, those of us who don’t go to them.

  • SEV

    While the LDS conference center is billed as a conference center, it does host weekly worship services.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Many thanks, folks, for the helpful comments.

    Joe, I agree that megachurch is not a putdown to many members of megachurches. Even so, I’m not sure that many people associate megachurch with excellence in design. In that respect, I think Rybczynski raised a good point.

    Andy, you’re correct about the dated reference to three-piece suits. I got so caught up in the comparison between the Willow Creek auditorium and business attire that my eye simply glossed right over three-piece. I am a sucker for suit-bashing remarks.

    Micah, I think I’ve always seen Joel Osteen in a suit. Robert Schuller, a Reformed Church in America pastor, wears a robe when he preaches.

    SEV, thanks for the correction about the LDS Conference Center. I assumed too much based on its name, and I could not find a website to see its regular schedule. My argument was further flawed in that an LDS temple does not have a fixed staff of clergy or the same congregation meeting there week after week, so it’s not the equivalent of, say, a Roman Catholic cathedral.

    On the other hand, for most megachurches the main auditorium is as exalted as it gets. For Saints, a temple is more exalted in its design and is the focus of ordinals that are central to the LDS faith. In that respect, I see the conference center more as accommodating large gatherings (such as the 175th Semiannual General Conference) than as an emerging trend in LDS design.

  • C. Wingate

    OK, let’s see:

    Willow Creek started in a theater (hmmm– common thread there) and moved into its current space in 1981. Washington National Cathedral was finished in 1988. Oddly enough, they seat about the same number (though I expect that a standard Sunday service in the latter is nowhere near packed) but…..

    Oh, nondenominational. Which is to say, hmmm evangelical and thus probably non-liturgical.

    I see nothing remarkable about a liturgy that evolved in a theater being put into simply larger and larger theaters. It’s a utilitarian approach to church, and it’s always going to make buildings that are, well, utilitiarian– i.e., that don’t say much. The “Taj-Mahony” as I’ve heard it called is, on the other hand, a building that is very much out of a liturgical tradition and which therefore is having a lot to say– mostly very confused things. Trying to put all of this into an overall picture is really problematic, because the ghost in this is that different Christians have very different ideas about what ought to go on in church.

    The sleeper question is whether anyone can summon up a combination of money, patience, and taste to build a big church of architectural distinction.