Longform

From Bauhaus to God's House

Page 5 of 8

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.

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Mark Alden Branch