Church Architecture Is Subject of New Book

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Oct. 18, 2001 at 2:29 PM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 18 (UPI) -- Judith Dupre is making a name for herself in book publishing with one volume after another of gorgeously designed and illustrated bestsellers in the field of architecture.

The 44-year-old author from Mamaroneck, N. Y., follows up on "Skyscrapers," an 18½-inch high book to fit its picture matter, and "Bridges," a narrow book a yard wide when opened to span its photo imagery, with "Churches" (HarperCollins, 168 pages, $35). This is an oversize book which has a split cover to open like the doors of the tabernacle depicted in Donatello's "Annunciation," the cover illustration.

Not only is "Churches" one of the most beautiful art books published this year, it is also a bargain for a quality book that you would expect to pay twice as much for. If you put it on your Christmas gift list for anyone interested in cultural or religious subjects, you won't go wrong.

Dupre, a cultural historian with a degree from Brown University, gets some high-powered help in writing her books. Philip Johnson, dean of American architects, wrote the introduction to "Skyscrapers" and Frank Gehry, architecture's current pin-up practitioner, did the same for "Bridges."

Mario Botta has written the introduction to "Churches," which focuses on Christian places of worship. He describes the church as "the place, par excellence, of architecture."

Botta is a Swiss architect noted for his commercial, museum, and especially religious structures, including the first cathedral built in France in more than a century. This amazingly timeless red brick cylindrical structure at Evry, just south of Paris, is pictured in the book.

"Church architecture describes visually the idea of the sacred, which is a fundamental need of man," writes Botta in an interview with Dupre.

"Mankind has been capable of creating for itself this very particular kind of space. There is great mystery in a church. For me there is a great privilege to be confronted with the design of a church because it shelters the most powerful themes of humanity: birth, marriage, death."

Dupre has selected 64 church structures spanning 2,000 years, illustrated in color with photos from many sources and accompanied by floor plans, many published for the first time. A band of running text along the top of each page features Christianity's best-loved prayers, psalms, and hymns.

Six major Christian denominations are represented by churches as diverse as an Ethiopian Orthodox subterranean rock-hewn church and a wooden Roman Catholic pagoda-roofed church in Borgund, Norway, both 800 years old, and the glass Reformed Church Crystal Cathedral, a super studio for televised evangelical worship in Garden Grove, Calif.

Dupre's accompanying text, based on wide research and interviews with architects and religious historians, is generous with facts, bright with anecdotes, and personal to the extent that the author voices her own analyses, occasionally sardonic, of what makes a religious edifice original and aesthetically superior.

In the case of the Crystal Cathedral, she writes that it may be disconcerting to those used to "the homey fit of stone churches" but it is important as "a future monument testifying to the power of television, the power of positive thinking, and the power of architecture. The structural dynamic is matched by the Rev. Dr. Robert Schuller's high-octane sermons delivered in his velvety, reassuring voice."

Among the outstanding entries in Dupre's blue book of church architecture are such unfamiliar structures as the community-built 18th century Saal at Ephrata, a Pennsylvania Dutch meeting house, the totally abstract Santa Maria Church in Marco de Canavezes, Portugal, completed only five years ago, and the multi-domed Metropolitan Cathedral of Managua, Nicaragua, a modern masterpiece in a setting of squatter's shacks and barbed wire.

The book also has its share of the usual suspects including St. Peter's in Rome, an entry including a view of the basilica taken from a satellite 400 miles overhead and a double-page spread of the restored ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. New York's unfinished Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, gets its due as the largest cathedral in the world, and Chartres Cathedral in France and its glowing stained glass windows is lovingly documented.

The austere Salt Lake City Mormon Temple rates a fascinating essay, as does Great Auditorium of the Methodist Ocean Grove Camp Meeting in New Jersey, the epitomy of Chatauqua-style timbered Gothic meeting houses. Mary Baker Eddy's impressively moated Mother Church of Christian Science in Boston, expanded in 1975, is handsomely pictured in an autumn setting.

There are informative entries for St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, and the U.S. Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colo, which looks like a giant aluminum comb and has been likened to a skating rink. Only recently has it been recognized as one of the finest contemporary designs by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, an old-line New York firm of architects.

Dupre has not hesitated to include her own place of worship. It is St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Mamaroneck, a Gothic wood-vaulted structure that is a Norman Rockwell model of what an American church should look like, and indeed Rockwell attended St. Thomas as a teenager.

Dating from 1886, it was built in brownstone in imitation of an English village church with a modest bell tower and fine stained glass windows. It is, in the words of the author, a "reassuring image and a place of undeniable sanctity" that provides "the infinite comfort and growing necessity of being connected to something much larger than I am."

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