From Bauhaus to God's House

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"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.

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Mark Alden Branch