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

There are two kinds of reactions to Cunningham's saga in the architecture world. Both address the profession's profound identity crisis at a time when architects' ability to shape the built world seems to be getting smaller and smaller.

There are those who hold a traditional view of architects as artists who must be afforded their creative integrity. The supporters of such an "architectural elite" regularly decry the work done by "service firms," business-oriented architects who turn out reliable but dull, predictable architecture. The followers of this paradigm see Cunningham's dismissal as a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to let the artist pursue his vision.

Others say the "artist" stereotype is a myth propagated by architecture schools and magazines that celebrate a few "signature" architects who don't have to work under real-world constraints. These signature architects, they say, have dragged the profession into irrelevance with their focus on one-of-a-kind solutions and avant-garde aesthetics. To those who subscribe to this view, Cunningham is a prima donna whose stubbornness kept him from meeting his client's needs.

Both positions, of course, are overreactions. The truth is that we need both dully competent architects and eccentric visionaries to keep our built environment intact and interesting. If Frank Lloyd Wright had designed every building in America, we'd all be running for buckets every time it rained. But the few he did design helped change the way nearly every architect in America works.

Besides, the Prince of Peace story blurs the stereotypes beyond recognition. Cunningham has worked well with tight budgets before, and has satisfied numerous clients. And Corgan's buildings--and its awards--demonstrate that the firm is capable of excellence, even if it doesn't go in for Cunningham's level of experimentation.

What went wrong at Prince of Peace may have more to do with the church's breakneck pace than with architectural personality types. The church had virtually no time to define itself as a community before embarking on its ambitious building program. Without shared experience, it was hard to have shared goals. Unlike most congregations, this one didn't even have an existing church for reference--only a movie theater and a middle school auditorium.

And even in the best circumstances, the hardest thing about architecture is translating someone's abstract ideas into built form--especially when the client is a multi-headed one like a church. Different architects will interpret their clients' wishes differently.

Just as Brent Byers says he tries to "embody the goals" of his clients, Cunningham insists that he was giving the church what it said it wanted. "I say to my clients, 'You're the client, so you make the monster. Tell us what you want and we'll listen.'

"It's like Frankenstein sometimes, though. The monster they built turns on them."

Mark Alden Branch, the Observer's Cityscape columnist, is a correspondent for Progressive Architecture. He lives in McKinney.

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