The Suburban Church

Modernism and Community in Postwar America

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Gretchen Buggeln
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    University of Minnesota Press
    , December
     2015.
     368 pages.
     $40.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780816694969.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Drinking perk coffee next to a gold accordion wall, the contemporary visitor to a midcentury suburban church struggles to imagine the original vision for such a place. The familiarity of the A-frame construction, the glulam beams, the cheap natural materials obscures a fundamental truth about these buildings: they were a radical departure from everything that came before. In her marvelous new study of modernist suburban churches, Gretchen Buggeln explores the ways that suburban American church people in the 1950s and 1960s tried to rearticulate their faith in a world transformed by war, new patterns of consumption, and new modes of transportation. To the jaundiced twenty-first century eye, these buildings might suggest an especially threadbare middle-class conformity; to their midcentury builders, though, they made an electrifying argument about how religion would encounter the modern world.

The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America makes a distinguished contribution to a growing body of literature concerned with suburbanization and mainline Protestantism, phenomena long overlooked for their supposed banality. With David Hollinger, Elesha Coffman, Kevin Kruse, and a growing chorus of others scholars, Buggeln argues that the beliefs and practices of these once-ubiquitous Protestants say something significant about America in the middle of the last century. For Buggeln, that lesson has mostly to do with a creative and hugely optimistic marriage of theology and physical spaces, as congregations labored to demonstrate the vitality and relevance of religion in modern American life. These projects were accompanied by a twinge of neo-republican anxiety: new suburban developments, it was thought, might come unmoored without religion. Yet in Buggeln's telling, the impulse to build came mostly from an assumption of religious strength, a widespread belief that churches would participate fully in the spirit of the age.

As Christians flooded into the suburbs, they built with a particular set of values in mind. Modern Christianity, they thought, should draw on the resources of tradition while retooling them for a transformed world; sanctuaries, then, should recall the chapels, meetinghouses, and cathedrals of American and European memory, but should do so using a radically simplified visual language, free of fussy embellishment. Church communities should be adaptable and family-centered, and should therefore design their facilities with modular walls and furniture suitable to the changing purposes of a bustling suburban congregation. And critically, churches should serve the need of the moment, drawing on new construction techniques and materials to provide affordable, unpretentious facilities.

Behind this project stood a cadre of earnest and rapidly professionalizing church architects, people of surprising intellectual sophistication who sought to place modern theology in conversation with the best of contemporary architecture. Men like Edward Sövik, Edward Dart, and Charles Stade cultivated their own distinctive theological-architectural vocabularies, working closely with Protestant luminaries like Paul Tillich and Martin Marty, even as they served lay building committees of considerably smaller imagination. In many cases, competing priorities strained the architects’ craft to the limit: they were asked to provide buildings that were cutting-edge yet comfortable, theologically resonant yet utilitarian, distinctive yet affordable. One of the strengths of this book is its evocation, through analysis of these architectural tensions, of the nettlesome contradictions inherent in the American suburbs, places that provoked idealism and practicality, inventiveness and conservatism, in equal measure.

Buggeln's excellent treatment of those tensions brings to mind additional fault lines in midcentury suburban life, and leads the reader to wonder about their relevance to church architecture. Might it be possible, for instance, that in abandoning the more elaborate style of the urban congregation, suburban churches were also fashioning a new kind of self-consciously "white" religious aesthetic? For that matter, how deep might be the connection between the architectures of worship and commerce? Might visual similarities speak to the ways that suburban church people, just like their neighbors, were designing a world of and for middle-class consumption?

That this book leaves the reader with some potent questions is a testament to the freshness of Buggeln's subject and approach. Specialists will find much to appreciate here, as Buggeln provides a substantially new lens through which to interpret the midcentury American Christian experience. But the book might also be valuable to the church people who still occupy spaces built by congregations that were never again quite as large, wealthy, or energetic as when they commissioned an A-frame sanctuary on a prominent suburban street corner. To live and worship in such buildings is to interface each week with a recent but obscure past; in a more than academic way, perhaps, The Suburban Church excavates the hopes of that age.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Sizer is Assistant Director of the Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts at Westmont College.

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gretchen Buggeln holds the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University. She is author of Temples of Grace: The Material Transformation of Connecticut’s Churches, 1790–1840.

Keywords: 

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