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.
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A service inside the new First United Methodist Church

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.

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.

But ultimately, it's just a big, tall box. And while that's an altogether honest architectural expression for an urban site, it's not a space that seems likely to trigger a spiritual rush.

Here's where it gets tricky. The intersection between earthly architecture and the spiritual dimension is tough to talk about because it's altogether subjective, dependent on beliefs and cultural baggage. For example, Southern Baptists, who for the better part of a century were totally smitten with the Greek Revival, easily see the sacred in its noble grandeur. Heathen observers find it amusingly ironic that such staunch Christians would gravitate to temples designed as tributes to Apollo and Zeus. Don't they know?

I'll edge out on a rain-slick limb, though, and venture some thoughts about sacred architecture.

First, organic forms — the shapes and textures of Creation itself — are more conducive to spiritual experience than workaday boxes. This doesn't necessarily mean oozing and swooping. E. Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas, one of the most celebrated American buildings of the late 20th century, doesn't have a curved line anywhere in it. But its intricate web of 2x4 pine trusses abstracts the canopy and mottled light of the surrounding Ozark woods, and finally expresses the forest as pure geometry. It's breathtaking.

Second, the power of mystery can't be dismissed. The architecture of a sacred space shouldn't be something we can figure out at first glance. At St. Ignatius, Holl introduces light from unknowable sources, a powerful metaphor. The building inspires and rewards contemplation, appropriate to meditation in any religious tradition. Spatial relationships and geometry that lie outside everyday experience take us outside ourselves, not a bad idea in a church.

In his remarkable book The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton offers this audacious ideal: "It is architecture's task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be." That's a tall commandment for any building, but a church, above all, should try to fulfill it.


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