Academic journal article Bucknell Review

How to Read a Church

Academic journal article Bucknell Review

How to Read a Church

Article excerpt

AFTER houses and retail stores, one of the most abundant and ubiquitous features of the built landscape of the United States is its churches--or, more broadly, houses of worship. From giant metropolises like New York and Los Angeles to tiny crossroads hamlets such as McGonigle, Ohio, one or more church buildings are virtually essential to bestowing ontological status on a place; without a suitable site for public worship, a gathering of buildings is simply that--a nameless cluster--rather than something that can be experienced as a community. Like houses and stores, though--and perhaps even more so--not all churches are alike. They differ considerably in such particulars as size, shape, style, siting, age, ornament, interior arrangements and furnishings, and the materials from which they are constructed. In both their general patterns of construction and distribution as well as in their individuality churches can be interpreted as markers of a community's social, cultural, and historic identity. To understand their significance, one must learn to read them--to see them not just as genetic icons of religiosity but rather as particular embodiments of that cultural impulse, simultaneously unique and representative. This essay is an attempt to provide the beginnings of a vocabulary and grammar for such a task of reading--primarily of Christian churches, which dominate the American landscape, but also of Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist houses of worship which increasingly compete for visual attention in a nation in continual demographic transformation.

At the most basic level, churches (a term I shall use genetically to mean "buildings for worship") are physical constructions; whatever their metaphysical implications, they are necessarily built--literally from the ground up--out of components such as brick, stone, wood, glass, concrete, and the like. The catalogue of components that make up a church is inconclusive in itself but can provide some preliminary clues as to the building's character and context. Wood, for example, is usually cheaper than stone, unless the latter is unusually plentiful (and/or the latter scarce) in a particular region. In many circumstances, then, a wooden church is a sign that the congregation that erected it is of modest size and means. The local abundance of a particular material may also lead to some interesting regional stylistic variations; where the Gothic style in Europe was usually executed in stone, in parts of the United States brick or wood may be a substitute. Such adaptation is usually more a matter of necessity or opportunity than intention, but the results--such as the "carpenter Gothic" style popularized by the Anglican architect Richard Upjohn during the mid-nineteenth century--can be dramatically innovative and aesthetically pleasing. It may also come to constitute a regional style that transcends denomination, visually linking together churches ranging from Eastern Orthodox and Episcopalian to Methodist and Baptist. (This frequently happened in the American West during the later nineteenth century.) In more developed and prosperous urban situations, congregations may rise above such exigencies and build grander churches of stone, even when that material has to be imported at considerable cost.

Scale and siting are two other related physical characteristics of a religious building that need to be factored into any informed "reading" of a church. "Scale" is more or less synonymous with "size," although it implies that size has to be gauged in relationship to other structures in the vicinity or to similar structures elsewhere. Together, these factors have considerable impact on how a church is experienced by those in visual contact with it. A diminutive parish church sandwiched between larger buildings in the midst of an urban residential or commercial block, for example, sends a different message about its status and role in its community than does a giant cathedral sited in lonely splendor on a hilltop. …

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