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

Part of the problem was that, unlike the building committee and Father Balint, the rest of the congregation had not been exposed to the detailed discussions behind Cunningham's decisions. And sometimes even the committee members were unpleasantly surprised by what they saw. "We always have a deep logic behind our ideas that's hard for people to argue with," says Cunningham. "If we say, 'We should use this because it's an honest material,' people can't say no. So they go 'okay.' But then when it's built, people go 'Shit, that's not what I wanted.'"

As the dirt continued to fly, Brad Goldberg's sculptures again became an issue. Cunningham says that as Goldberg worked on the pieces, there were "scream fights" about such specifics as how the stone was to be carved, how the water would come out of the baptismal font, and how one would hold a baby to be baptized there. These issues were ultimately resolved to everyone's satisfaction--but not before driving Goldberg to the brink of quitting the job.

For his part, Father Balint exercised his authority cautiously, preferring to help guide the committee to consensus. "He was very guarded," says Cunningham. "You never sensed his personal feelings about these things. And he never let his personal taste get in the way, even though he had told me once, 'Gary, I'm a chrome-and-glass kind of guy.'"

As the project neared completion in the spring of 1994, it was clear that, despite all the wrangling, the parish was pleased with the way the worship space was turning out. People were impressed by the intimacy of such a large church, where no seat is more than 48 feet from the altar. "They said, 'Wow, I really feel a part of it,'" Father Balint remembers, "or 'Is this really a 1,000-seat church?'"

The architectural community, too, would give the worship space positive reviews. Besides the award from the AIA, the building got a rave from Dallas Morning News architecture critic David Dillon, who called it "flat-out brilliant, just the kind of architecture that one would hope a new congregation on a new landscape would embrace."

The sanctuary was indeed a triumph. Cunningham had succeeded in tackling a notoriously difficult design problem: creating a space for modern worship that is spiritually uplifting or transcendent without resorting to traditional iconography or pretense. In the worship space, in the glass-walled gathering area outside the worship space, and in the eucharistic chapel, Cunningham had astutely used humble materials to create what virtually everyone agreed was a noble space.

While the committee and the congregation were by and large happy with the way the inside of the church was turning out, the outside was another story.

Ultimately, a row of humble concrete slabs got Gary Cunningham into trouble. Vexed by what he considered an insufficient budget, Cunningham put much of the money and design attention into the south side of the building, along the Holy Way. But people driving by on Plano Parkway saw only the "back" side, where an austere wing of classrooms with concrete walls pointed to the street. As this wing took shape, the issue of those walls began to overshadow everything else. "People assumed they were going to put brick over it," recalls Father Balint. "When they found out that was the way it was going to look, the negative response began to build."

While admitting the concrete is "homely," Cunningham defends his decision. He had chosen an economical construction method called "tilt-wall," so named because pieces of concrete wall are formed and poured on site, then tilted into an upright position. To add visual interest, he had workers press willow branches from the site into some of the concrete slabs, leaving shadowlike impressions.

Cunningham explained that the concrete was more durable and longer lasting than other solutions of comparable cost, such as the brick veneers on steel frames that are commonly used in school construction. "We could have done a brick veneer on metal studs, but it would have fallen apart in 20 years," he maintains. "This is an honest solution like Vatican II calls for."

It is also the kind of solution that modern architects once chose as an article of faith. From the rise of modernism in the 1930s, architects were taught to use materials in "honest" ways. Putting a brick veneer over another type of construction was considered a moral transgression; a steel building should show off its steel, and a brick wall should be a real wall. This attitude, which never really filtered down to the houses and shopping strips of suburbia anyway, was abandoned for elaborate post-modern deceptions in the 1970s and 1980s. But many architects like Cunningham still embrace the philosophy.

This "honest" expression continued in the classroom interiors, where finished ceilings were omitted, exposing the underside of the roof, complete with the protruding ends of nails and fasteners. Father Balint says Cunningham's "ruggedness" bothered people who preferred a "sleek finished look."

To find that look, you needn't go farther than across the street from Prince of Peace, where "North Dallas Specials" line Plano Parkway. It is easy to see why an architect like Cunningham wouldn't like these houses--they are textbook cases of architectural pretense, with a layer of brick wrapped around their wood frames, a roofline designed to make the house look bigger than it is, and windows that appear to be--but are not--divided into smaller panes. This is the architectural language of the suburbs, the kind of place where most Prince of Peace parishioners spend their off hours--except for Sunday morning.

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