In Temples for a Modern God: Religious Architecture in Postwar America, Jay M. Price presents an inspiring history of religious architecture in Northern America. While his focus is on the post-war decades, the study looks back to the end of the 19th century and goes up to the 1970s. Price declares that the book was motivated both by his own rethinking of his childhood perspective with comparably “uninteresting” Lutheran post-war buildings, and by the fact that until now this period of church architecture was not a subject of major academic or public interest. The result is a complex social history of religious communities in the US, that often started without significant funding or professional knowledge about architecture, at first meeting in garages and simple self-made buildings.
Temples for a Modern God can be read as a history of stylistic preferences, providing information about changing cultural orientations as well as about the religious life of various denominations. For example, early Catholics preferred variations on European Gothic architecture while Methodists and Baptists preferred a colonial style. Sometimes ethnic and confessional roots in other parts of the world can still be seen in American religious architecture, as with the typical stylistic elements of Greek Orthodox churches or when local American styles like New Mexican clay architecture are adopted.
The post-war era experienced a building boom as a result of immigration and economic growth. It witnessed the development of multifunctional spaces, like the tripartite Jewish concept of a house of prayer, a house of assembly, and a school. The post-war era also initiated experiments with a Bauhaus-oriented “modernity.” After years of a critical reception, more and more Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and even Buddhist communities began to follow a more common “modern” style that was connected with being “American.” In particular, Protestant liturgical reflections caused changes inside buildings. No longer was the focus on the Eucharist, but rather on the ability to host large-scale events such as pop concerts. Finally, around 1970, multi-faith spaces became a topic of architectural reflection, when several religions no longer wanted to impress their members and others with typical monumental architecture, but wished to share a common idea of sacred architecture as such.
As a German scholar, much of Price’s book is interesting for me in comparison to the architectural history of sacred spaces within the last one hundred years in my own region. For about sixty years now, Germany has faced similar developments in immigration and migrant communities as the US in the first half of the 20th century. In particular, Muslims in Germany experienced a period of informal improvization and the re-purposing of existing buildings. In the last two decades, a number of mosques have been erected with stylistic tensions between Near Eastern architectural traditions and “modern” international architecture that is sometimes perceived as a sign of integration.
It is clear that Price does not write from a religious studies perspective. He paints a detailed, fascinating picture for lovers of architectural history. Readers from the field of religious studies are left wanting for information about religions other than Christianity and Judaism, even as Price mentions Muslim or Buddhist buildings from time to time. Price’s focus is suggested from the beginning, with terminology concentrating on architectural terms like “gothic” or “modern” style. The “temple” and “god” mentioned in the title are both used in a common, perhaps metaphorical way, and obviously not as religious studies meta-terms for the comparison of religions. Actual debates in the discipline of religious studies about religion and space (Kim Knott), material culture and sensual perception (David Morgan, Birgit Meyer), and space connected with social dynamics and discourses are not explicitly mentioned by Price. Nevertheless, Price draws on common debates in contemporary cultural studies (e.g., about gender and everyday life) for his analysis of buildings: he asks about the role of women, who in the post-war era organized community life to the extent that the kitchen became a regular element of the religious buildings he discusses.
Methodologically, Temples for a Modern God narrates a chronology by using different, mainly written sources such as documents from religious communities, journals for architecture, documents from architectural institutions, and biographical data about architects and consultants. The book contains several black and white photographs illustrating the exteriors and interiors of buildings. By arranging this material chronologically, Price narrates religious history in a dense, informative, yet readable way. From a European perspective, the book is a temptation to immediately and extensively visit the mentioned buildings, as well as a help for shedding light on the European early post-war history of religious architecture that was, until now, not an object of deep interest as it has been in America.
Jay M. Price directs the Public History Program at Wichita State University. His publications include Gateways to the Southwest: The Story of Arizona State Parks as well as several books on local history, most recently, Wichita's Lebanese Heritage and Kansas: In the Heart of Tornado Alley. He serves on the boards of the Kansas Humanities Council, Kansas State Historic Sites Board of Review, the Wichita Sedgwick County Historical Museum, the University Press of Kansas, and the Kansas Association of Historians.
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