A Religious Experience - Part Four

Unity Temple
875 Lake Street
Oak Park, Illinois

For my latest installation in my series on ecclesiastic architecture in Chicago, I decided to bend the rules a little by choosing a completely unorthodox church located in a suburb. However, given the significance of Unity Temple within Frank Lloyd Wright's body of work, and his stature in the history of American architecture, I felt it was fair to make an exception, considering how close it is to Chicago.

Unity Temple is a Unitarian Universalist church, dedicated in 1909. When the congregation's original church burned down in 1905, Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived in the neighborhood and was himself a Unitarian Universalist and family friend of the church's pastor, stepped forward to design a replacement structure. The congregation had a modest budget of $40,000, and a long, narrow lot abutting a busy street. Wright's design for the new church ignored all conventions for ecclesiastic architecture. In his larger body of work, Wright sought to develop a new, modern language for architecture, and he applied that principle to a religious space in his design for Unity Temple.

Unity Temple is built completely out of reinforced concrete, poured on-site, and was one of the first buildings to employ such a technique. Although Wright's design originally fit within the congregation's budget, the unproven construction techniques called for in his design quickly caused costs to balloon, and the church took three years longer than originally planned to be completed.

The building has somewhat of a forbidding air, as there is no readily apparent entrance. To maximize the efficiency of space on the narrow lot, Wright placed the entrance in a vestibule in the middle of the building set back from the street, which divided the sanctuary on the street side, from the church community center on the rear portion of the lot.

To cut down on noise from the busy street outside, Wright employed only a narrow band of windows near the roofline. Since the parishioners would not be able to see outside, Wright employed earth tones such as brown and green in the stained-glass panels, to echo nature.

Although Unitarian Universalism has its roots in Christianity, they embrace a wide array of religious beliefs and practices. They believe in a single God, but reject the Bible as his definitive word, choosing instead to seek truth from all sources. Above all, they preach a respect for all mankind, social justice and equality, and the individual's pursuit of meaning. I've often thought that if I were going to join an organized religion, Unitarian Universalism might be for me.

The unusual multi-tiered seating arrangement devised by Wright allows the greatest possible amount of seating, given the space, while (in his mind), emphasizing the equality of the congregants. No seat is further than forty feet from the pulpit. In my opinion though, I most certainly wouldn't want to be seated in the lower level of pews, sunken halfway into the basement. It felt a little bit like a dungeon down there.

Despite the use of only a small frieze of windows in the walls of the church, the chamber was surprisingly bright and airy. This effect was achieved with the use of stained-glass skylights, set into the coffered ceiling.

Unity Temple demonstrates a unique fusion of Wright's Prairie School emphasis on flatness and horizontality with the traditional sense of verticality found in most holy spaces. Common to nearly all ecclesiastic architecture is a sense of reaching towards the heavens, which Wright realized by creating strong vertical lines. The presence of natural light at only such a high level also naturally draws the eye up. I thought this effect underscored Wright's mastery in this design, as he managed to evoke a traditional sense of heavenly awe, while staying true to his style and employing purely modern, original forms.

Sadly, although Unity Temple is a treasure of modern architecture, a National Historic Landmark, and a nominee to UNESCO's World Heritage list, it is also falling apart. In 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it to their list of the country's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The church is currently raising funds for a multi-million dollar restoration, to which Mom contributed twenty dollars, plus the change from our entrance ticket sale. As you can see in the above photo, the interior concrete is crumbling and falling. Lights are either burned out, or missing entirely. Water seepage in the roof is threatening a collapse, and panels have been nailed all over the ceiling to prevent pieces from falling down into the building. It was truly a disheartening sight, and one can only hope that they will be able to raise the necessary funds to prevent this architectural masterpiece from becoming another victim of the Great Recession.

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