Built for Today, Living on in Tomorrow

Evan McWilliams on Gretchen Buggeln’s Suburban Church

Gretchen Buggeln, The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America, University of Minnesota Press, 2015, 345 pp., $40.00 paper
Gretchen Buggeln, The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America, University of Minnesota Press, 2015, 345 pp., $40.00 paper
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Those who grew up in the sprawling postwar suburbs of the United States typically pass by the churches that dot the landscape, surrounded by cracked pavements and peaking out from behind mature trees, without remark. As a corrective to such dismissive or uncritical eyes, Gretchen Buggeln, Chair in Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University, offers The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America, a fascinating account of the philosophical and practical origins of these churches and a paean to the vibrant communities that built and used them.

Buggeln has structured her book around the work of three principle architects: Edward Sovik, Edward Dart, and Charles Stade, whose work lies mainly in the newly-expanded postwar communities of the Midwest. By limiting her study to one geographical area and a small number of designers, Buggeln is able to present a clear narrative free from too much regional variation. She avoids the peculiarities of style found in such places as the eastern seaboard, where versions of so-called Colonial architecture survived far longer than in those parts of the country, and instead she carefully maintains a focus on the postwar vision of a truly modern suburb.

The clean slate provided by such a restricted corpus enables Buggeln to delve deeply into the philosophy of what she terms the “modern church movement,” and her account of the entry of Modernism into the hitherto conservative American architectural establishment is valuable. Buggeln presents some of the key individuals and organizations that led to the acceptance of modern architectural styles in American church circles and notes, in particular, the influence (always in the background of any fully-formed discussion of modern ecclesiastical art in the twentieth century) of the Liturgical Movement. She argues that, in imbibing the principles of that Movement, the mainline denominations in the United States were challenging the culture on its own terms rather than, as authors like Moyra Doorly and Michael Rose have suggested, giving in to a culture opposed to Christian principles.

Such an examination of the role of modernity in postwar church design is clear enough, but one might wish it to be informed by a deeper discussion of the cultural landscape of the preceding decades. For example, what does one do with the 1929 claim made by Ralph Adams Cram, sometime head of the Architecture Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that “the curious fad of ‘modernism’… [will never] attain a foothold here?” How did the architectural establishment, largely conservative in impulse during this period, relate to the leadership of many of the mainline churches from which the directives regarding modern style eventually issued? The connections between these players in the game of civilization have yet to be made clear.

Avoiding the potential confusion inherent in a broad discussion of trans-continental architectural philosophy, Buggeln organizes her work – on the buildings of Sovik, Dart, and Stade – around an appeal to specific examples that are considered in their unique contexts. This approach, enabled by the availability of contemporary records, provides a clear window into the minds of those who commissioned the buildings in question, the difficulties inherent in fundraising and construction, and the discussions that often surrounded the selection of a modern style where traditional styles were more familiar. In giving several churches individually their own story, and relating it to the larger narrative of the modern church movement in the United States, Buggeln provides a flexible template with which to understand many an unspecified church in other parts of the country. This is an extremely valuable contribution to the study of the cultural landscape of the nation at a significant period in its history.

Similarly valuable is her examination of the A-frame and the relationship between the practicalities of inexpensive construction and architectural symbolism. Buggeln presents a less often discussed aspect of church design, that of the individual church as icon of all churches. She argues convincingly for a reading of modern church design that sees the reality of a church building as both a type and a logo. The simplification of vernacular forms – a pitched triangular roof and a tall rectangular bell-tower – is both a representation of the idea of the church held in the collective consciousness and a recognition of modern advertising which requires a brand to be recognizable.

This leads neatly on to a discussion of style and community which itself generates further questions. In defining the church as the location for a worshipping community, how is the push by some for greater use of modern materials and styles to be understood? Is it an incursion into a settled state of affairs or a fresh new voice to be welcomed? The interplay between style, theology, and community dynamics deserves greater examination than Buggeln provides, particularly in relation to the personal philosophy of Sovik. His ideals, best captured in Architecture for Worship, are reflective of the same thought-world as Peter Hammond’s influential Liturgy and Architecture, written a decade earlier. Both men are indebted in some measure to the social thought that paralleled the Liturgical Movement from the 1930s onward, and Sovik’s dogmas regarding church design cannot be understood apart from the broader theological discourse taking place on both sides of the Atlantic.

Still, Buggeln questions a common reading of postwar suburban church design that perceives, in the use of pared-back traditional forms alongside Modernist elements, a sort of lukewarm escapism. She demonstrates that such a perspective fails to take into consideration the self-proclaimed intentions of many who designed and built the churches in question. Buggeln is careful to differentiate between the potential meaning inherent in a church and its meaning as understood on its own terms, making use of period publications and personal interviews with those who were members of fundraising or building committees. She concludes that, far from being attempts at running away from the modern world, suburban churches of the 1950s and 60s were most often an attempt at carefully considered engagement with the issues posed by the postwar cultural climate.

Addressing these cultural challenges, Sovik, Dart, and Stade’s churches were consciously designed to address issues surrounding the religious education of children, the position of the church as a provider of stability, or in some cases a distinctly progressive attitude, within local communities, and the relationship between denominations and the wider ecumenical movement. The long-term viability of these churches, designed for a particular cultural context, highlights both the positive and negative aspects of modern design, suburban planning, and even the very social structures of postwar American life. Such a broad view connects the end of Buggeln’s book to its beginning and offers a useful lens through which to see the ubiquitous suburban church with its steeply pitched roof, metal steeple, and rough stone planters as something very special indeed.

Dr. Evan McWilliams studied architectural history at the Savannah College of Art and Design before receiving his PhD from the University of York in 2015. He is currently training to be a priest in the Church of England at Cranmer Hall, Durham.


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