One of Eliel Saarinen's final designs.
Widely published after its completion in 1949, Eliel Saarinen's Christ Church Lutheran changed the face of American religious architecture. An honest and forward-looking design, the church spoke of its own time and place, appearing inherently modern even within traditional orthodoxy. Situated in a quiet residential neighborhood in south Minneapolis, Christ Church Lutheran is as simple as it is sacred. It is a design that feels both quietly meditative and bursting with humanity, a design that redefines spiritual space. Without precedent, Christ Church Lutheran instantly became THE model for American ecclesiastical architecture in the second half of the twentieth century, its influence so pervasive that the progressive design almost seems unremarkable today- its form echoed again and again across the landscape.
When the Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen agreed to help the Christ Church Lutheran congregation, the influential architect was in the final stretch of a long, prolific career. A father figure to American Modernism, Saarinen helped shape postwar architecture, changing the discourse with projects like the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Crow Island Elementary School, and First Christ Church. In 1947, Christ Church Lutheran's young pastor, William A. Buege approached Saarinen to design a new building for the growing congregation. After a Gothic Revival-style church proved too costly to erect, Buege turned to Scandinavian design (on the recommendation of Dr. Arthur Carl Piepkorn, a faculty member of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis) as an economical solution for a new (and affordable) building (those clean lines meant lower costs). After writing Saarinen to gauge his interest in the project, Buege met personally with the architect (the son of a Lutheran minister) and managed to convince architecture's elder statesman to take the somewhat low-profile commission. It was a partnership that would produce both a friendship and a masterpiece.
Construction on the new church began in 1948. A simple composition comprised of a large rectangular, steel-framed volume with one-story projections extending from the sidewalls is clad in multi-colored brick and trimmed in Mankato dolomite. The primary facade of the church is organized into square stone panels with a large window positioned in the lower right corner. Framing the long window, four sculptural panels (faith, hope, charity, and the education of children) reinforce the church's commitment to the community. Attached to the church by a passageway, a bell tower provides verticality, its straightforward geometry crowned by a large aluminum cross. Overall, the effect of the exterior is one of streamlined geometry, a calm and compelling design enhanced by its textured surfaces and clean lines. It is a complex that expresses its materials, form, and function in a truthful manner, meeting the needs of the congregation and earnestly embracing modernity with open arms.
While the exterior of the church revels in its modern simplicity, the interior is a triumph of Saarinen's unique approach to architecture. The nave is large with rows of pews providing room for 600 people, but its organization and attention to detail (light and acoustics) gives a surprising sense of intimacy- it is a soaring space that still retains human scale and feels warm and personal. Finished with rose-colored common bond brick, travertine, white oak, and white pine, the interior maintains a connection to the natural world. Bright light filters into the sanctuary through full-length windows on the south side of the nave, casting ever-changing shadows and giving a sense of time. In a nod to the technology of the period, Saarinen handled the more mechanical elements with remarkable nuance. Acoustics dictated the shape of the nave and the pitch of the ceilings (for example, none of the exterior walls are parallel and the rear walls curve gently to enhance sound). Lighting illuminates the altar and the large aluminum cross hanging on the whitewashed wall to bestow an almost Baroque luminosity. The design of the church is simple, yes, but its execution is extraordinary. Saarinen created a spiritual space where the Word of God could not be overshadowed.
A monumental work of modernism, Saarinen's quietly radical church emerged as an immediate icon. Reconciling past and present, the design appealed to both the architecture world and the American public, providing a revolutionary alternative to traditional design. An article published in the July 1950 issue of Architectural Forum noted:
Art, science and faith achieve a serene harmony in this simple church. At a time when burgeoning scientific discovery is sometimes the master rather than the servant of architecture, the Saarinens have demonstrated here that science and art may be perfectly, yet inexpensively wedded. The faith that built the church was spread by its young pastor, who believed deeply that a modern structure would serve Christianity better than a Gothic or Colonial copy, and who found a way to convince his congregation that he was right.
In purity of spirit and simplicity of form this church recalls the early Christian era; yet it has a contemporary core. Its spirit and form retain their impact because the architects have handled the technical elements with such subtlety that only an expert would guess how scientific the treatment actually is.
Eliel Saarinen passed away in the summer of 1950, shortly after the building was dedicated, making Christ Church Lutheran the architect's final completed project. Nearly a decade later, Eliel's son, Eero (at the height of his career), designed the church's Education Wing- a sensitive and complementary addition to his father's original vision. Attempting to create a subordinate building so as not to take away from the main church, Saarinen's wing (completed in 1962) keeps a low form and is clad in identical brick. Sadly, Eero Saarinen would die unexpectedly in 1961, just before the wing was completed.
With its clean lines, honest materials, and evocative simplicity, Christ Church Lutheran shed the traditional trappings of American religious architecture to reimagine sacred space. The design proved to be a milestone in Saarinen's career and in American architectural history, a structure breaking free from the past to establish something truly modern. In 1977, the American Institute of Architects awarded Christ Church Lutheran its prestigious Twenty-Five Year Award, and in 2009, the church was named a National Historic Landmark.
You can read more about Saarinen here and here.
I'm looking forward to an extended vacation, so I'll see you next month with something new. And as always, thanks for reading.
Image at top:
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Christ Church Lutheran. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2011631332.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.