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In modern church architecture, the magic of sacredness is rare

A deal saved the old downtown sanctuary and allowed First United Methodist to build a new church near Seattle Center. The new building is honest but boxy, with fetching details and luscious cherry pews.
The exterior of the new First United Methodist Church, seen from across Denny Way

The exterior of the new First United Methodist Church, seen from across Denny Way By Dale Lang/courtesy of Bassetti Architects

A service inside the new First United Methodist Church

A service inside the new First United Methodist Church By Dale Lang/courtesy of Bassetti Architects

Should a church building feel sacred? A simple, seemingly trivial question, but as it turns out, a prodigiously tough nut to crack. What gives architecture the appearance of sacredness? Why does it matter? And if it does, is it morally right to spend any more than necessary on a church building when homeless people are standing outside in the rain, noses pressed against the windows?

These are almighty issues, stirred up by the new First United Methodist Church building at Second Avenue and Denny, opened for business at the beginning of February. I allow upfront that I'm debatably equipped to answer them, being a devout agnostic. But I was a card-carrying Methodist for some three decades, most of that time passed happily enough in the choir. And as an architecture critic, I've spent considerable time prowling churches, wondering whether there were transcendental experiences to be had in them.

There are. Two hills and a freeway overpass away from First Methodist is the Chapel of St. Ignatius on the Seattle University campus, designed by Steven Holl in 1997. Although a dreary farrago of modernist clichés on the outside, inside is the most inspirational space in Seattle: a counterpoint of filtered and tinted daylight with a faint suggestion of catacombs and a distinct air of mystery.

First Methodist doesn't aspire to those qualities, and vanishingly few American churches of the modern era do. Allusions to grandeur and permanence, hallmarks of the neo-Gothic and Classical Revival styles, are gone. Heaven-storming spectacles such as the Air Force Academy Chapel are vanishingly rare. In their place have come merely practical buildings — lecture halls, essentially. The magic shows are over.

First Methodist left its century-old building on Fifth Avenue downtown in 2009 after then-King County Councilman Dow Constantine orchestrated a deal for developer Nitze-Stagen to buy the property, preserve the sanctuary, and build a 43-story office tower beside it. (The tower is currently on hold due to the sullen economy, the sanctuary is temporarily accommodating concerts, and Nitze-Stagen president Kevin Daniels says he's "still looking at options" for a permanent adaptive re-use.) This sanctuary, like so many of Seattle's historic buildings, is more cultural landmark than architectural treasure. A Beaux-Arts salad with a Byzantine dressing, it's fussier and less confident than Union Station in Tacoma, a stylistic cousin. But its preservation will keep a welcome island of ornamented texture and modest scale in downtown's forest of towers.

"We sold it at the top of the market, which is what made the new building possible," says Dave McNeal, co-chair of First Methodist's Building Advisory Board. The historic property sold for $30 million. The new digs, including land, design and construction, came in just under $36 million. Another million in preservation subsidies from the city and county and $5 million in internal fund-raising made up the difference.

Marilyn Brockman, a principal of Bassetti Architects of Seattle, was the lead architect.

What did the congregation get? From the outside, a boxy but distinctive urban landmark, thanks to its skin of crinkly titanium shingles. It would be a stretch to call it beautiful, but it does offer fetching details. The concave scoop facing the Denny side simply celebrates the stainless steel cross centered in it, and the dished roof over the clerestory extrusion nicely echoes the concavity in another dimension. The bronze door pulls at the sanctuary entrance look like handmade oars or palm leaves — symbolic to believers, or simply graceful organic forms.

Appropriately for an urban church, the complex incorporates a parking garage and a shelter for homeless men.

Inside, the sanctuary is light and bright, thanks to the clerestories and acres of white paint. "Light!" was one of the congregation's prime requests, McNeal says. The old sanctuary had darkened as towers increasingly sopped up the sun around it. Cherry pews add a stunning display of natural art to the interior — there's not a more luscious wood in all Creation.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Mar 3, 9:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Maybe they could sell it to the Unitarian Church?

What I mean is, christian sects have different ideals, odd though that is to consider. Though the new church architectural 'suggestion' is of modernity, the Methodists don't make that case as much as do Universalist Unitarians.

The cross (to me) is not a place of cruxifiction and death. It is rather a segmentation of god and faith, like Old Testament - New Testament, the New cancelling gross mis-understandings of the Old.

It's too bad the building lacks upward uplifting architecture. I'd move the cross. Its forward mount is inappropriate. What were they thinking? You got cross? You come in. Salute cross! The chamber is lovely. Sit down. Hypnotizing begins, "Liberals are evil. The Progressives! You'll burn cuz yer no good! Thank you, Jesus."

Sorry to have to put it bluntly. The conservative cause has gone terribly awry and don't deny it. Moving the cross is just a suggestion. Major Seattle artists have a terrible sense of context. It's embarrassing. Such trash art at Sculpture Park. "ooh, a giant traffic cone, how clever." Orange Eagle in fab metal. doh. Metal tree. Weird black machine piece dropped on forest. That's some crazy weird art. "Death in a White Ford Taurus?" What a fun thing to consider first thing at the entry! Wheee!

Wells

Posted Wed, Mar 3, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

But can you hear the Preacher?

Posted Wed, Mar 3, 11:04 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't think the photos of this church really reflect how it is in use, which is truly the most important factor in church design. When the room is full of music, when it's full of choir voices, when it's full of sermon words, etc. What is the space like then? In many ways, the best church architecture works as well as with your eyes open as closed.

Don't forget the architecture is very denomination-dependent. Lutherans, for instance, traditionally build very spare, simple churches because the "spiritual rush" isn't supposed to come from the church building itself but from the people inside and from the words and music congregants experience there. This attitude probably stems from the core principles of the Reformation itself, really. But this doesn't mean that simple, spare churches can't be beautiful (just visit any church in Scandinavia, for instance). However, such churches may not suit the taste of someone who wants churches to exhibit "spiritually needy" design.

Certainly, also, congregations with social missions rightly see the money and expense of a church building as something balance with money and expense devoted to helping the homeless, the poor, etc. The simplicity of design is appropriate in that context.

I'm not sure there's anything to criticize in this particular building, other than a lack of ornateness that would be a bad fit for the denomination or for the congregation's mission.

smacgry

Posted Wed, Mar 3, 11:33 a.m. Inappropriate

@Wells -- Suggest some homework for you: study First Church's theology, which is far from conservative. The interior cross is actually a banner, which changes with the seasons (no cross there now). The exterior cross is permanent and is designed to help people know "this is a church," not "this is a conservative church." Perhaps it fails at that, but once inside people will learn First Church is a haven of liberals, providing an alternative to the conservative religious tide that is now ebbing and attempting to faithfully share a gospel of openness, spiritual depth, and compassion.

Posted Wed, Mar 3, 9:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Compassion and spiritual depth is spending $36 million dollars for land and a building?

sarah

Posted Wed, Mar 3, 10:37 p.m. Inappropriate

@sarah - welcome to the world of downtown Seattle real estate and construction prices.

Posted Thu, Mar 4, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate


$36 million for land and building.
How much for heat/cooling, electricity, utilities, maintenance, etc.?
Carbon footprint?

Posted Thu, Mar 4, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

A lot less than the old complex, I'd wager. Wasn't that part of the reason to move?

mhays

Posted Thu, Mar 4, 2:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, Sandy, I'm familiar with the world of real estate and construction costs. But if you are claiming to be an organization devoted to social justice and want to be accorded the respect for the actual PRACTICE of social justice (and yes, I know that there is a shelter in the church), that huge an expenditure for land purchase, architectural costs, and construction costs is simply obscene. If that $36 million project was do-able, then it should have been possible to spend less on the building and more on true social justice aims. I'm not familiar with Christian theology but surely there are a few teachings that cover this situation.

sarah

Posted Thu, Mar 4, 5:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for your input, Sarah. We'll definitely take that into consideration next time we build.

Posted Thu, Mar 4, 6:38 p.m. Inappropriate

The Catholic Church is restoring the Washington Hotel ballroom on 2nd and Stewart and turning it into a new downtown parish. No smaller carbon footprint than using whats there. Plus, the space is spectacular.

mills

Posted Sun, Mar 7, 4:40 p.m. Inappropriate

I think Mr. Cheek is adopting a most generous, Christian attitude toward a less-than-mediocre work. The Bassetti firm has done fine work in the past. Not this time.

kieth

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