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

Father Balint and the building committee did not give Cunningham an aesthetic direction for the church, beyond those contained in Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. "We went to him because of his creativity," says Balint, delegated to serve as spokesman for the building committee, whose members declined to be interviewed for this story. "Besides, Environment and Art says that what the church looks like is not critical; it's what we're going to do in the church."

Despite this seemingly open attitude, Cunningham and Odum sensed from the earliest meetings that the committee members' first experience with an architect had left them skittish. "There was distrust from the beginning," Cunningham recalls. "You could see it in subtle body language, or in the way they would make us repeat things 50 times." In retrospect, says Odum, "We should have requested a new committee. The old committee seemed burned out after what had happened."

"These people were volunteering, and had already been through a year of work and one architect," adds Cunningham. "That's a lot of stress." The architect was also concerned about the church's budget, which he felt was about a million dollars less than its building program required.

Cunningham and the committee, meeting regularly in the church's offices, began by discussing the parishioners' vision for their church. "A lot of their thinking in the beginning had to do with how the building was going to be perceived in Plano," he recalls. "The original [PSA and Weese] master plan had the church right on the street, kind of like a mall, with the church as anchor. After a lot of discussion, we talked them into doing something more inwardly focused."

Cunningham studied the suburban tract and discovered that a stream had once flowed through it before the site was prepared for development in the 1980s. "We wanted to bring back the stream and use it as an organizing element--both physically and spiritually."

Cunningham planned a system of storm water drainage that formed a kind of stream along an outdoor "Holy Way" leading to the church, with the baptismal font inside the church acting as a kind of symbolic spring. The church and the major spaces of the school face the Holy Way, which runs alongside the parking lot on the south side of the site. (The placement of the buildings was limited by a series of utility easements running across the site.) Future development was to continue along this outdoor corridor, with fountains and lily ponds maintaining the water theme.

Cunningham was determined to hold the church to the letter and spirit of the instructions in Environment and Art in Catholic Worship--instructions that matched his own design approach particularly well. With the help of liturgical consultant Lyle Novinski from the University of Dallas, Cunningham beat back attempts to "decorate" the church or use faux materials by continually referring to the bishops' guidelines.

A case in point involved wrangling with the building committee over the church's altar, a single piece of red Texas stone roughly shaped by Dallas sculptor Brad Goldberg. "Some of the people on the committee wanted the altar to be removable for concerts or other events," says Cunningham. "But we were talking about big, heavy pieces of stone. So someone suggested using Styrofoam finished to look like stone.

"And you know, if we hadn't insisted, you'd have a 40-pound Styrofoam rock out there now, and nobody would have known the difference."

Like PSA and Weese, Cunningham found the Prince of Peace building committee to be more divided than those he had encountered on other jobs. "We always felt like we were running months behind because it was so hard to get a consensus. There was so much internal debate, and it was sometimes pretty heated."

Cunningham thinks his method of working with committees may not have helped. "We keep things very open, and present things as options to the committee, rather than just offering them one idea to accept or reject. It can be tough on us and on the client."

Still, throughout the nine-month process during which the design evolved, neither Cunningham nor Father Balint thought it was going badly. For an architect, working with a committee is by definition more difficult than dealing with an individual client, and both sides accepted that there would be struggles to reach common ground. "We went into construction with a real positive relationship," says Cunningham.

The final design, for which Prince of Peace broke ground on February 21, 1993, called for a round worship space with a shallow cone-shaped roof held up by tubular steel supports. In the center of the space were to be three stone pieces by Goldberg: an infant baptismal font, an altar table, and a lectern. Individual chairs would be arranged in a circle around these pieces. At the top of the room, a modernist interpretation of a cupola would bring in light, filtered by a floating oval canopy that Prince of Peace literature likens to "the cloud that was a sign of God's presence as the Israelites were led through the desert."

But after construction began--and Cunningham's ideas moved from paper to actual bricks and mortar--the architect's relationship with his clients began to deteriorate. Parishioners--particularly those not on the building committee--started registering complaints. "We had some people who were upset, some of them old-timers who were putting up money," says Father Balint. "They were thinking of St. Patrick's Cathedral, and wanted a traditional church. Well, this is a traditional church, but it's early Christian tradition, not High Middle Ages. Some of these people were extremely vocal, and some left."

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