Tuesday, October 07, 2008

An Architectural Delicacy: Thorncrown Chapel from a Religious Point-of-View

I have the good fortune of being married to someone who spent several years of her life growing up in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. This is good for a number of reasons, but mainly it was a good excuse to vacation in the beautiful mountains of Arkansas and to see the famous Thorncrown Chapel designed by E. Fay Jones. Sharing a blog with an architect, and stumbling across pictures of Thorncrown via the Internet made seeing the chapel top priority.

I had several thoughts upon leaving Thorncrown. The first was, why do chapels get all the great buildings? I suspect there are several reasons that chapels (as opposed to sanctuaries built by congregations) generate the best ideas and employ the best architects. For starters, congregations rarely have the funds to be avant garde. They usually can muster up just enough cash to fund a standard, if not boring A-frame sanctuary, with predictable stability, efficiency and minimal religious symbolism. In the case of Thorncrown and other chapels, it was the wealth (thanks in part to answered prayers)and land of one person that provided the carte blanche necessary for architectural risk and reward.

Occasionally, wealthy members of congregations will pony up substantial funds for a church sanctuary, enough funds to bring on an architect with bold ideas and vision. But other considerations must be dealt with in a church that a stand-alone chapel rarely deals with. Mostly, it's a question of stewardship. "Should we, as a church," they'll say, "spend that kind of money on a building when we can build a bigger one for half the cost and give the rest of the money to the poor?" Certain, a fair question. Also, a building committee will rarely agree on a bold design, but instead, will almost always opt for a safe, comfortable, familiar design, even if it is unexceptional and may mimic their over-carpeted living room, or the church most of them "grew up in."

But once I was done mourning the reality that I would never serve in a space as beautiful, I asked myself what makes Thorncrown stand out? What makes it work so well? There were a few features that struck me, especially from a religious point-of-view. For starters, it is a vulnerable structure. Unlike the great cathedrals (I acknowledge they have size considerations as city parishes), Thorncrown embodies fragility and delicacy. It looks as though a strong wind would leave it splintered...yet it holds, bracing itself with interlocking beams.

The fragility is especially appealing as religion itself is as a fragile enterprise. Religion is dependent in very real ways on the duel saintly and sinful natures of its participants and leaders. History displays serious religious scars, and ultimately what holds the Church together is the fragile faith and hope of a people who believe in a god as yet unseen. Thorncrown seems to welcome this fragility. In a culture where Christians can be zealous, proud and arrogant, Thorncrown ignores that hubris and admits that believers walk by a fragile, but steady faith. The architecture of the self-assured is bulky, dated, and gaudy. It projects certainty, not vulnerability. Thorncrown is, as faith often is, hard to nail down, and hard to know where to begin. It's just there, and even though a whisper of doubt could knock it all down, it holds in spite of looking weak from the outside.

One also cannot mention Thorncrown without commenting on the way it blends in to its natural surrounding. Architecturally, it strikes me that this is the way a good designer will be at the mercy of what is presented. In this case, the client was not Jim Reed as much as it was the Ozark Mountains. I recognize that most religious buildings are not built in the mountains. But every religious structure is built somewhere, and that place is a place of ministry. The place of ministry, in fact. I remember my seminary's chapel, nestled amid a thoroughly modernist building in Chicago. The front and back walls were entirely glass, with one wall looking out towards 55th street. Buses, students, joggers, and the homeless all were the backdrop to worship. This was an urban school, and the chapel did not shield the urbanism beyond its walls with sheetrock and religious art. Instead, there was an intentional effort to embrace it.

But too many churches act as cloisters. Forget stained glass windows...many of them have given up on windows altogether. (I guess the natural light makes spotlights less effective. We wouldn't want there to be any doubt about who the main attraction is, after all.) When worshippers enter the space, they might as well be entering another zip code. They can get their worship over with in this enclosed space, and then never really worry about what goes on outside those walls. Thorncrown makes that cloister mentality impossible. To be in that space is in itself to focus on what happens outside those walls. Suburban churches appealing to the nominally religious would do well to learn from Thorncrown's openness. It has genuine theological value.

Much more could be written about Thorncrown...it's attention to detail, its lasting importance, its wonderful combination of humility and awe. I could maybe even stretch my interpretation to observe the dependent and interlocking nature of the beams as a reflection of the Christian community itself. I'll just say that what I found particularly impressive was its openness, openness to the outside world, and seemingly, whatever may come its way. There is a place for strong, dramatic and safe religious architecture to convey the strength, certainty and finality of the god we worship. But Thorncrown acts as a reminder that there is also a place for delicacy and fragility, feelings the faithful know all-too-well over the course of a religious life.

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