From Bauhaus to God's House
Father Jim Balint was nervous when he stepped into the Loews Theater on February 10, 1991. The seats were filling up fast, and he knew the theater would only hold 550.
The priest had scheduled three masses for that morning--the most he could squeeze in before his makeshift church had to turn back into a movie palace. By the end of the morning, 1,200 people had come to the first Sunday masses of Plano's brand-new Prince of Peace Catholic Community.
The theater was one of the few places in Plano big enough for such a crowd. Another likely spot, Renner Middle School, was booked until May by a new Methodist congregation. So until then, Father Balint's new parishioners had to worship on sticky floors amid the scent of popcorn. "Because of the slanting floor, there was a joke that went around," says Balint. "People said that you can always spot our parishioners because they're the ones leaning forward."
A parish like Prince of Peace, fueled by the explosive growth of Dallas' northern suburbs, could not stay in such accommodations for long. Just over three years after that first service, the congregation dedicated a striking new $5.5 million church and school complex. Prince of Peace's new home won top honors in the 1995 annual awards program of the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
But even as the congregation publicly celebrated its new home, a private holy war was continuing over its design--a war that led to the dismissal of two prominent architects, including the one who had designed the buildings.
The conflict, mostly carried out behind closed doors, reveals the gap that exists between what some call the "architecture culture" and popular taste--a gap that has perhaps never been wider.
The gap shows when architects sniff their disdain for the developer houses they call "North Dallas Specials," which are nonetheless being built by the square mile in Plano and other northern suburbs. It shows when England's Prince Charles calls a proposed modernist building "a monstrous carbuncle" to score points as a populist.
The Prince of Peace story offers particularly striking questions about the rift between art and popular culture. What--or who--is wrong when architects and critics celebrate a building that divided its clients, produced the sacking and vilification of its architect, and that a local official compared to "a concentration camp or a prison"?
The Diocese of Dallas created Prince of Peace in 1990, in response to the suburban growth that had led to standing-room-only services at three other parishes in Plano and North Dallas.
When fresh boundaries were carved, the new parish ended up with a young and wealthy chunk of West Plano and Far North Dallas bounded by Coit, Frankford, Highway 121, and the Denton County line. The diocese gave the new parish a charter that called for a church and an elementary school that will ultimately serve students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
The diocese assigned Father Jim Balint to the new parish. Although Balint was a veteran priest, having served as an Air Force chaplain for many years, Prince of Peace was to be his first parish, and he saw the new church as a rare opportunity to effect change.
Since the Second Vatican Conference (widely known as Vatican II) in 1962, the Catholic Church has encouraged a modernization and simplification of churches and of the worship service itself. Some of these changes have met with resistance in congregations that cling comfortably to tradition. At Prince of Peace, there would be no "old way of doing things" to get in the way.
The results might surprise you if you think you know the Catholic Church. Kneeling, for example, is no longer part of a service; worshippers stand for prayer and to receive communion. The seats are arrayed in a circle to emphasize the church community. There is a prominent pool at the entrance to the worship space for baptism by immersion, a custom more often associated with Baptists but one now favored by the Vatican. And the tabernacle containing the communion wafers--sacred because they are considered to be the body of Christ--sits in a separate chapel, instead of in its traditional place of honor in the sanctuary.
On first impression, Father Balint, gray-haired and 65, doesn't seem a likely agent of change. His solemn demeanor and deep voice exude the gentle but firm authority long associated with Catholic clergy. But Balint says what he is doing is not radical: "We're following the church's instructions. We're one of the few doing it, but we're following the church. If I were to have inherited an existing parish, it would have taken a long time to get people off their knees."
With space in a low-rise Plano office building for church offices and use of the theater on Sundays, the new parish was up and running in early 1991. By April, Balint had appointed a 12-person building committee, which quickly decided to build a 1,000-seat church and school as part of the church's first phase.
Meanwhile, the parish found space for its activities wherever it could: in May, services were moved to slightly less surreal quarters at Renner Middle School, and in August, the Prince of Peace Catholic School opened in a Plano strip mall.
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."
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."
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.
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.
"There is a conflict between these people's theology and their daily life. Money and power speak in their daily life, but that shouldn't be true in a church or in a school. And that hasn't been true in any other church we've been involved with."
For phase two, Father Balint refreshed the building committee with new blood, appointing several new members to replace others who had bowed out.
The new committee went to work interviewing Prince of Peace's third group of architects. Phase two consisted largely of a school expansion, with additional classroom space (the school now goes through fourth grade and adds a grade every year), a cafeteria, a gymnasium, and church offices. After interviewing six candidates, the committee chose a Dallas firm, Corgan Associates, partly for its expertise in schools.
Like Cunningham's, the Corgan firm has received critical praise in recent years, both for its suburban schools and for downtown work, including buildings at the Dallas Farmers Market. (Corgan's Farmers Market Resource Center was the other building chosen for an Honor Award from the AIA in 1995.)
But Corgan is a different kind of firm than Cunningham's--one that is considerably safer aesthetically. Corgan's West End office is more polished than Cunningham's quarters. And Corgan's work seldom has the kind of raw edges Cunningham seems to relish.
Many of Corgan's award-winning projects are the work of Brent Byers, a principal in the firm. Byers, a good-natured, elegant man with silver hair and mustache, is the partner in charge of the second phase of Prince of Peace.
In describing his approach to the project, Byers hits on a good characterization of his firm's work as opposed to Cunningham's: "We want to do innovative things, but more conventional innovative things." Byers, for example, has no philosophical problem with brick veneer, and disagrees with Cunningham about its durability. "We're not nearly as theoretical. Brick veneer will last as long as concrete, and the cost isn't much different."
Byers, who has designed a number of schools in Plano and neighboring Frisco, also seems to have a more sophisticated understanding of the suburban culture--and a greater willingness to accommodate its self-image. "We try never to get into a position of defending our work," he says. "We will work with the client to embody their goals."
As a suburban community matures and becomes more certain of itself, Byers observes, it becomes more conservative. He notes that Frisco, a municipality just beginning the transition from small town to suburb, is willing to accept more adventurous designs for its schools than Plano, citing one of his recently completed Frisco schools as an example. The school, which contrasts different shapes and brick colors in a dynamic composition, "does not represent a traditional school in its architectural forms," says Byers. "Frisco knows that and likes it, because they want to be progressive and competitive. Twenty years ago, when Plano was younger, they built a high school using tilt-wall concrete. Now that they are a full-fledged city, their tastes are more conservative."
Byers says he addressed that conservatism in his design for phase two of Prince of Peace. Most of the design echoes Cunningham's work, which Byers calls "wonderful" and "a firm foundation for our work." But in dealing with the much-maligned school, he has introduced a different vocabulary of gable roofs and decorative brick patterns that echo the houses across Plano Parkway. In an obvious gesture of camouflage, the new wings of the school wrap around the old one, with a one-room-deep addition covering up the north end with a new brick facade--complete with a sign reading "Prince of Peace Catholic Community."
Clearly, Byers understands that the view from the parkway matters much in the suburban car culture.
Gary Cunningham says he knew one building committee member understood his work when he said, "We're not doing a billboard, we're doing a tapestry." Byers, on the other hand, acknowledges that what he is doing--at the church's insistence--is a kind of billboard.
On Sunday, August 13, enlarged model photos of Corgan's phase two design were on display in the atrium of Prince of Peace, and many churchgoers saw the new plans for the first time. Parishioners crowded around the photos, curious to see what was to be done about the school wing. Reactions ranged from relief to amusement. "So they're going to do a cover-up job," chuckled one man.
Balint says it's too early to judge the success of the ongoing campaign for phase two funding, but that the design of the additions seems to have put the issue of the school to rest. He hopes to start construction by next June.
The public response of Dallas' architectural community to the change of architects was minimal, though Cunningham did receive one mild gesture of support. In the jury comments that accompanied the Dallas AIA Honor Award in May 1995, juror James Ingo Freed (a partner of I.M. Pei and the designer of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.) said he considered it "essential that the same architect be allowed to follow through on the design of the second phase."
By then, of course, Cunningham's dismissal had been a fait accompli for months.
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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