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

Cunningham recalls that the building committee was excited when the concrete first went up. "They were there when we poured the concrete, and did the stuff with the willow branches, and they loved it," he remembers. "They said it was cool. They were sucked into the vortex, into the spirit of the thing." But as the congregation and the neighbors began to complain, he says, the committee's enthusiasm melted away.

In May 1994, the Prince of Peace Catholic Community dedicated its new home with a celebration including a dedication mass, a golf tournament at Gleneagles Country Club, and a $50-a-head dinner-dance at the Westin Hotel Galleria.

But even as the congregants spun around the Westin ballroom, they spoke unhappily about "the concrete." Everyone was upset about the concrete--and Father Balint was concerned. "No pastor wants to have a divided parish, particularly when people have been giving up their own funds."

Cunningham remembers the dedication well. Until then, he says, people had at least been polite. But that day, "this guy came up to me who was ready to ream me a new asshole. He said that everything was terrible, that he hated everything. He was apparently pretty wealthy, too."

The internal struggles at Prince of Peace boiled over into the press a month later, when, out of the blue, during a meeting of the Plano Planning and Zoning Commission--the church was not before the group--commissioner Janet Stovall complained about the school's concrete walls. "It's ugly," she declared, in comments later quoted by The Dallas Morning News. "There's no other way to describe it. It looks like a concentration camp or a prison." Stovall inquired whether raw concrete was allowed as a finish material under Plano's building code. She was assured that it is.

"It did not look like a finished building," Stovall says now, explaining her comments. "It was kind of a shock--I thought, 'Is that all?'"

In the same News article, Father Balint acknowledged that his congregation wasn't happy with the school. For his part, Cunningham repeated his arguments: that the concrete was an economy measure, that it was a "humble and honest" material, and that landscaping would improve the view from Plano Parkway.

Balint, who says he loves the church but agrees with critics of the school, remembers conferring with Cunningham and the committee about what could be done. "The consensus was that we would landscape and add vines," the priest says. Recalls Cunningham: "Father started spending money that I didn't know we had on landscaping, trying to appease people."

As the year progressed, it became apparent that the furor over the school was not going to die down.

Under normal circumstances, Cunningham, as the architect of the first phase and the author of the master plan for Prince of Peace, would have continued with the second phase. But, says Father Balint, because of the dissatisfaction, the choice of an architect for phase two "became an open question." In the meantime, Cunningham was still dealing with Balint on a "weekly, if not daily" basis throughout the summer and fall, clearing up details and dealing with other problems that arose, such as continuing difficulties with acoustics in the worship space.

During these months, the subject of phase two never came up. But Cunningham and Odum knew that the time to think about it was drawing near. "We began talking about phase two and saying 'What will we do if they call us?'" says Cunningham. "If we got the job, we'd have terrible struggles, and we were beginning to worry about our mental health. But if we didn't get the job, we wouldn't get to finish our project."

On the advice of the building committee and the fund-raisers for phase two, Balint finally decided to take Cunningham out of the running. "Our development task force said that it would cost us in terms of fund-raising if Cunningham was the architect," he explains. "The decision wasn't based on architecture, but on the well-being of the community."

In December 1994, Balint sent Cunningham a letter informing him of the decision, and offered to meet with him to explain. But Cunningham says he understood, and didn't really want to make Father Balint explain a decision that he imagined was painful for the priest.

Asked if he would have covered over the concrete to keep his job, Cunningham responds quickly: "No, and they probably knew we wouldn't have. I knew the design would have developed over time, but that requires patience, and patience is not in great supply right now."

With the help of a year's growth of ivy, the school wing doesn't seem so bad when you drive by it today; the violent reaction seems far out of proportion to the building's capacity to offend. In truth, Cunningham's choice of the word "homely" seems just about right. But the architect believes the flap over "the concrete" was just an excuse--that the classroom wing was simply the easiest part of the building to attack. "The people who were unhappy were unhappy with everything," he maintains.

Cunningham also feels that money played a key role, and that wealthy parishioners pushed Father Balint around. (In talking about the affair, Balint and Cunningham speak protectively of each other; their mutual respect has clearly survived the ordeal.) "Father is often treated like an employee. The idea of money still speaks loudly there," Cunningham maintains.

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