In search of the Brutalist churches of America…

I have been trying to find Brutalist churches in the Americas as part of my interest in the different attitudes to Brutalism on either side of the Atlantic. In doing so I came across the story of the demise of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington D.C. The Church is in the process of being demolished – they have a camera trained on the site which takes a picture every 30 minutes which is a little gratuitous. Something about the debate around the church has struck me even amongst the building’s supporters; the discussion took place around whether the building was anti-urban or not, whether, specifically if it animated the sidewalk or not. It’s detractors beat it with the stick that it’s blank walls offered nothing to the world around it. I thought back to what Reyner Banham said in his book New Brutalism, that the movement had ‘a preoccupation with habitat, the total built environment that shelters man and directs his movements’. What could be a better architectural approach for places of worship than Brutalism? It is not much of a leap to adopt this approach to architecture and direct the mind of man (to God) as much as his movements.


Of course when Reyner Banham was writing about directing mans movements he was discussing Brutalist public housing projects in the United Kingdom and Europe. However he also highlighted what can best be described as an interior turn in architecture; a focus on the interior as a total environment and a deliberate rejection of the facade as an interplay between two worlds. In Europe this drive – which comes from I think a reconfiguring of man’s relationship with nature – was clearly attractive to the commissioners of churches. Architects could create places were thoughts rather than movements could be directed. It doesn’t seem to have struck anyone in the debate about the Third Church of Christ that the that the blank walls were entirely deliberate. Jane Jacobs active streets have been wrongly co-opted in a debate about the meaning of religion.

In Europe, Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame Du Haut – a medidative, contemplative space if ever there was one – and is perhaps the most famous example of a Brutalist church. It is certainly not the only one. In my native Scotland, the Catholic church was arguably a better client for Brutalism than even the welfare state was. The now ruined St. Peter’s Seminary by Gillespie Kidd and Coia is arguably Scotland’s finest piece of modernism. It’s fate however highlights the reason perhaps for the relatively small number of brutalist churches in the USA not to mention the disregard for Third Church of Christ. St. Peter’s Seminary was obsolete even before it was complete. In 1965 Paul VI closed the Second Vatican Council in which the Catholic Church emphasized anew what it called “a universal call to holiness” which brought many changes in practices, including the simplification of services to include less Latin and emphasised the role of religion in the community.

Now whilst, Third Church is not a Catholic building, I think the Second Vatican Council identified a fundamental shift in religious attitudes in Europe which brought it in line with attitudes in the USA; that churches are proselytizing bodies, they are evangelising institutions rather than contemplative spaces. I would argue that in the religious ferment of the Americas, churches are by self-definition and in competition with other faiths primarily engaged in the universal call to holiness. (In Europe this reconception of the church’s role only took place in response to the secular shift of post-war society)  They must be part of the community. They must be after souls.


I’d argue that this was also a consideration in the campaign to replace St. Paul’s Chapel in Wisconsin. The main architectural feature in this little brutalist gem is the staircase and banked seating in the interior, which brings the congregation in from the street, makes them turn their back to the street and focuses their bodies and minds on the small font. It is this structural component which looms out over the entrance and creates what passes for a facade. Like other Brutalist church architecture the internal procession of the congregation is made monumental. Their gaze – free from columns – is focused on the altar, which is often placed centrally. The proposed replacement is a neo-Romanesque confection which is plonked on top of an entrance colonnade with numerous doors. This church is emphatically for a Church that is part of the community.

Of course there must be more Brutalist churches across the USA which I have not found and don’t know about; ones that are secretly cherished by those that use them. If you know of any please let me know.


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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3 Responses to In search of the Brutalist churches of America…

  1. Colin Bisset says:

    That interior reminds me so much of FLW’s Unity Chapel – not just the layout but the emphasis on lines. I’m sure we’ll come to regret so many Brutalist demolitions.

  2. Matt Jones says:

    There are two churches by Paul Rudolph in Boston (he’s done others through the eastern U.S.); they’re both pretty incredible. Only one is open to the public, I can send you info…

  3. cosmopolitanscum says:

    Matt – please do send them. I am really interested in Rudolph’s work having visited some of his earlier housing in Sarasota, Fla. Fascinating to chart his progress from Neutra-esque, Californian modernism to proto-brutalism. A not particularly slow process of screening off nature; each project blocks out the sun, humidity and mosquitoes just that little bit further. His extension to Sarasota High School was an absolute revelation, even as a shell. (It’s currently being refurbished.)

    Colin – Which makes your comments about FLW really interesting. I’ve been reading Banham’s brilliant book Scenes In America Deserta and he identifies in Wright’s work signs of a fundamental shift in how Americans thinks of Nature. Actually I think it was these comments that started me thinking about Brutalism in the US and Canada and why it was different and why it was similar to the UK.

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