The Changing House of Worship

Values have shaped sanctuaries, from the Puritan icon to the new megachurches

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A church in Windham, Vt., reflects its era's simple values.

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Before construction on the new Catholic cathedral in Houston, architect Kurt Hull spent hours with engineers and diocesan leaders, who called for an Italian Renaissance design. "They are traditional, and their focus is definitely all about the spoken word—it's not about entertainment," says Hull. "There was no thought of musicalperformances or JumboTrons." Indeed, the building, to be dedicated in April, has walls more than a foot thick to mute outside noises and accentuate the interior acoustics.

A second new cathedral, Our Lady of the Angels, completed in 2002 in Los Angeles, takes a decidedly modern approach to the Catholic worship space. Built to replace the St. Vibiana Cathedral, damaged in an earthquake, the new cathedral, designed by Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo, eschews right angles and resembles a structure by Frank Gehry or Frank Lloyd Wright. While European cathedrals were often built near rivers, Moneo had to build next to a freeway. Worshipers enter on the side of the building through massive cast-bronze doors, rather than through the center of the front. Likewise, Oakland's Cathedral of Christ the Light, slated for completion next year, has an almond-shaped floor plan, along with futuristic wall panels of aluminum and laminated glass.

Urban sanctuaries. Before the 1950s, the public's conception of a sacred space was far more unified than it is today, when the presence of the divine can be found not just in a cathedral but in a storefront in Harlem. Storefronts have been a staple of black and Hispanic ministries, which have seized on abandoned urban commercial space to provide local residents with a place to pray and share music and meals. They are sacred spaces found, rather than sacred spaces constructed to a purpose. And they are a uniquely American invention.

The Puritans surely would have cringed at these storefronts, just as they would have been scandalized by the bust of Darth Vader that adorns a tower of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Yet coming from these new designs is a renewed interest in the architecture of religious spaces, and an increase in professionals who specialize in creating them.

In the coming years, some architects predict that multidenominational churches—churches within churches—will come into vogue. Already, booming congregations around Detroit have been forced to share church space; a Korean Presbyterian and a First United Methodist church have done so near Chicago; and the Vietnamese Crossover Baptist Mission and the North Dallas Baptist Church have held simultaneous services in different rooms of the same church.

Still other architects see a return to sanctuaries inside the home. The Emerging Church movement, for example, harks back to the roots of the Christian faith with prayer meetings that focus on just a dozen or so worshipers. "The Shakers worshiped from inside the home, as did early Christians," says Crosbie. With some parishioners overwhelmed by the impersonal nature of large churches, he says, new structures might just return to the simplicity of the past.