Christ Church’s Extraordinary Church Building

The first Christians worshipped in private homes. The place where they met was called “the house of the church,” for the word “church” simply meant the baptized people of God gathered in assembly. When Christianity came out of hiding into society at large and dedicated spaces were built for worship, “church” gradually became the term for those buildings, rather than for the people who gathered there.

In the 20th century, church architecture and the arrangement of worship spaces gradually came to reflect a revived understanding of “church” as the gathered people of God and the church building as “house of the Church.” Christ Church’s building, completed in 1969, is a visible expression of that growing understanding, as well as an extraordinary work of architectural art.

The building was designed by Paul Thiry, who twelve years later received the prestigious American Institute of Architecture award for the design. The architectural style, “brutalism,” coined from the French phrase béton brut meaning “raw concrete,” is based on the early modernist work of Le Corbusier. Though there are similarities in its rugged, massive simplicity to the Romanesque churches of Medieval Europe, its architectural roots are modern. Thiry’s soaring sanctuary, with its felicitous combination of natural native materials, wood, concrete, and stained glass, provides an inviting, resonant space for liturgy enhanced by music and the visual arts.

On entering, one first encounters the baptismal font in the center aisle, leading to the broad yet intimate seating area that gathers the assembly, the “church,” around altar, lectern and pulpit, the principal places of our liturgical action, The font, where we bring new members into Christ’s Body the church; the lectern and pulpit, where we proclaim God’s Word in Holy Scripture; the altar, where we share in the very life of Christ in the sacred meal of Holy Communion.

The high curving concrete wall behind the altar provides a backdrop for three dramatic shadows of the suspended cross. This vaulted area is lit dramatically with spotlights, while much of the interior receives muted lighting from the gigantic ring encompassing the assembly seating. In the cool grey of this massive interior space, Thiry provided a contrasting warm, orange-toned marble altar, seemingly suspended in space.

Reverberant and yet clear acoustics support vibrant congregational and choral singing and the music of the pipe organ and other instruments, drawing worshipers into community. Simple architectural lines and materials provide flexible and congenial space for many-faceted visual arts, including stained glass, sculpture, banners, enamels, and a variety of seasonal adornments prepared by our Liturgical Visual Arts Group.

There are two sources of natural daylight: a long, low window in the west wall at floor level and its companion, a vertical window of similar proportions in the north wall. Reflections from a rectangular pool outside the west window provide shimmering, animated light ever-changing as the hours pass. The north window (now partially covered with stained glass panels from the old church building) provides the departing worshiper an anticipation of the outside world before leaving the worship space.

Streaming through stained glass windows of contemporary style and varying size, brilliant colored light plays over the concrete floor and walls. The windows, seemingly scattered casually throughout the space, are actually carefully placed, drawing the curious observer to wander throughout the building to see what may be discovered. These are part of clearly intentional design aspects that invite the onlooker into active engagement with the space and the principal symbols of our faith.

This “House of the Church” is a theologically grounded sculptural building in which the assembly gathers to worship, celebrate and be shaped and formed into the living body of the Risen Christ, and from which the assembly goes out, to be that living body in the world.

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website by Branded Look LLC   |   photos by Winfield Giddings
Christ Episcopal Church