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.