Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bye Bye to Brutalist Bunker Church Between the Beltways

One of the world’s ugliest church structures was the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington, DC, just blocks away from the White House.  This octagonal shaped building was designed by Araldo Cossetta, an associate of I.M. Pei, in a brutalist architectural style and was completed in 1971.

Academics often voiced approval of Modernist Architecture like brutalism.  Randall Ott, the dean of architectural design at Catholic University, waxed philosophically:  "Modernism was a fairly austere, fairly confrontational style, and the Third Church is an obvious example of that style."  But outside of academia, there usually are not warm feelings about austere and confrontational buildings.

La Verne Hill, a woman who worked nearby the brutalist behemoth, opined:  "It's awful. It looks like they just dumped a bunch of concrete down here and shaped it into a box." Church members had long long disliked the design of the building.  Longtime church member Darrow Kirkpatrick articulated: We think it says, 'Stay away.' Something goes on in here that they don't want to get outside, which is exactly wrong for all Christianity. We don't think the architecture conveys taking the Word to the people...  Brutalism is not our religious expression.”

Darrow Kirkpatrick 
Membership in the Third Church of Christ, Scientist dropped to 50 members.  But the congregation was stuck with an ugly architectural white elephant.  The brutalist building was not well suited for re-purposing.  It was a 60 foot tall concrete bunker that was hard to heat and harder to cool. There were structural defects in many spots.  And in order to change lightbulbs, a scaffolding needed to be erected in the sanctuary which would cost betweeen $5,000 to $8,000.  These were costs which  the congregation neither had the funds nor the inclination to pay.

Yet in 2007, the DC Historical Preservation Board unanimously voted the Third Church of Christ, Scientist as a Historical Landmark, thereby protecting it from demolition or alteration.  This had the fascinating dynamic of having the government tell a religious group where to worship and how to spend their funds.

Due to the shepherding of former Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty’s Planning Director Harriet Tregoning,  the zealotry of the Historical Planners was overturned.  Tregoning ruled that Cosetta design was an experiment which failed badly.  The city approved of razing the building in May, 2009 citing hardship of maintaining the building and the risk of the demise of the church if the Historical Landmark status continued.

 Yet it took until February, 2014 for the District to issue a permit to raze the building.  Little time was lost by Celtic Demolition to start to take down the structure.  And there was much rejoicing among ordinary District denizens.

William Newton, who writes the Blog of the Courier, put it poetically:

The more you are able to study and look at exactly why such hideous things as the Third Church of Christ Scientist came to be, the more you will realize why your gut reaction to their readily apparent ugliness is correct, because these buildings often reflect a wider, even uglier philosophy about human nature and man’s place in the universe.  Without knowing exactly why, you can cheer the demolition of this terrible building.

But it will take up to eight weeks to totally demolish the edifice, as the lower walls are six foot think walls of concrete.  The demolished scraps will be sent for recycling.

For any fans of brutalist architecture in the District of Calamity, they can still admire the F.B.I. Building, the H.U.D. Building, the Department of Energy’s Forrestal Building and the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art.

The property where the brutalist building once stood is slated to become another glass and metal shoebox office building, but it will have an economical space where the congregation can worship.

Aside from aesthetic issues, the battle over the brutalist bunker also brings to a forefront salient issues on religious liberty.  Perhaps the eventual triumph of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist over a government dictating how religious institutions must act might serve as a framework for future judicial decision regarding the H.H.S. Qualified Health Plan (Contraception Mandate) issue.

h/t: NPR
     Real Clear Religion
    Washington Post
    William Newton

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