From Bauhaus to God's House

What happens when cutting-edge architecture collides with surburban sensibilities? Mark Alden Branch tells the unholy tale of Plano's Prince of Peace Catholic Church

In December, the church bought a 16-acre tract at Preston Road and Plano Parkway for its new church and school. With a site in hand, the building committee wound up its interviews with architects, finally deadlocking between two Dallas firms: Phillips Swager Associates (PSA), a large firm that proposed to bring in the respected Chicago architect Ben Weese as its lead designer for the project, and Cunningham Architects, a small but critically acclaimed firm.

Father Balint, who had the final say, chose PSA and Weese in January 1992.
Prince of Peace parishioners had pledged $2.1 million in the church's first building fund drive. "We plugged that figure in with projections of growth and developed a building budget of $6 million," says Father Balint. It was enough, all hoped, to build the worship space, a eucharistic chapel, office space, the first phase of the school, and a library.

Father Balint gave the architects a 1978 Vatican document called Environment and Art in Catholic Worship as a guide for the project. Published by the United States Catholic Bishops, the book was intended to help congregations and architects bring church design into accord with Vatican II reforms.

Environment and Art uses words like "pure," "simple," "austere," and "humble"--words in sharp contrast to the heavily decorated Mediterranean aesthetic we often associate with Catholicism. Weese and PSA read it as a call for simplicity and structural expression; that is, the building shows you how it is put together. The worship space was to be square, with a vaulted ceiling supported by exposed wood trusses, in a simple evocation of a rural vernacular that might have suggested Collin County's agrarian past. This main room was to be placed on the north side of the site, on Plano Parkway, while the school and other ancillary spaces were to be arranged around a courtyard on the south side of the property.

But the Prince of Peace building committee was unsure about the design. Greg Schon, a PSA associate who worked as a designer on the church, says the group was divided. "We couldn't draw a consensus from the committee for the direction of the design," he recalls. Ben Weese gives a similar account: "The ones who had the money were traditionalists, but there were also these nouveaus who wanted something new. On the whole, they were a bunch of upwardly mobile, nervous people, and I didn't like them much at all."

As these disputes continued, say the architects, the building committee started asking to see alternative design schemes. Weese refused, preferring to try and "evolve one design until it fit their needs." The result, says Schon, is that the committee "lost patience and confidence in Ben." In April 1992, the church fired Weese and PSA.

"We let them go because we didn't think we would get what we were looking for," says Father Balint. "The consultant [Weese] wasn't here all the time, and we didn't feel we were getting the service we wanted." With PSA and Weese gone, the committee in May turned to its second choice: Cunningham Architects.

Any group seeking a tidy, conventional solution to its building needs would be back in the car within seconds of entering Gary Cunningham's Exposition Park office.

The architect shares the open second floor of a loft building with other architects, engineers, landscape architects, a sculptor, large parts of more than one VW Bug, and an unusually gregarious cat. Since there is no receptionist, you have to flag down the first person you see amid the chaos to find Cunningham or his partner, Sharon Odum.

Cunningham brought to Prince of Peace a reputation as the most creative architect in Dallas, known for his brash and unconventional uses of materials. A Dallas native, he began his career in the local office of the architectural giant HOK before going out on his own in 1981. He has made his name by experimenting with materials in an almost childlike way: for the Deep Ellum Cafe in Addison, he built walls out of the asphalt from a parking lot on the site. He fashioned the rough texture for the concrete walls of a small Dallas apartment building through a process that involved marbles and a rototiller. In 1988, he converted a 1920s electrical substation into a strange, wonderful house for Morton Meyerson, then president of EDS. Cunningham exploited the building's industrial origins, inserting new construction of concrete, steel, and glass in the raw shell. Progressive Architecture magazine approvingly called the house "a museum of electricity as brutalist low-tech power supply."

But Cunningham's most admired project is probably the chapel at the Cistercian monastery in Irving, adjacent to the Catholic prep school Cunningham attended. Completed in 1992, the chapel is a simple space of breathtaking beauty, with walls of massive stone blocks and a vaulted ceiling of wood that seems to float over the sanctuary. The Cistercian Chapel and two other religious projects (a Lutheran church and a synagogue) established Cunningham as someone who knows his way around church design.

Cunningham is a tall, affable man of 41, whose sense of humor often betrays an artist's puzzlement at the tastes of the masses. A Catholic himself, he describes his own religious beliefs as "not real intense, a little gray." He further explains that he didn't see being Catholic as an advantage in designing the church. "I don't want to get a church job for that reason. I want to get the job because I listen to what the people of the church want. Being Catholic could be a detriment, in that I may tend to try and project my understanding of Catholicism onto them. When we did a synagogue, they liked that we knew nothing about Judaism, because that meant they would get to shape our ideas about their religion."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help