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Professor analyzes post-World War II liturgical spaces

| Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Gretchen Buggeln, the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University, analyzed why post-World War II American churches look the way they do in a lecture titled, “Art, Architecture and Liturgical Space in Postwar America,” presented Tuesday in DeBartolo Hall.

Buggeln’s lecture, sponsored by the Cushwa Center for Study of American Catholicism, looked at Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches primarily built in the 1950s and ’60s in the Midwest.

Buggeln said much of her research focuses on how people experienced architectural space during these times.

“For a worship space to succeed, it has to support the ritual needs of the community,” Buggeln said.

Buggeln explained that her most recent research focused on understanding the way church leaders, architects and the laity grappled with the place of art, the character of modernism and the relative agenda of society in Postwar America.

Focusing primarily on the works of Edward Dart, Edward Sovik and Charles Stade, Buggeln employed these architects’ projects to illustrate the changing orientation of worship space in Protestant churches at the time.

“The buildings were designed with a high degree of intentionality, and three themes were prominent in the development of the churches in this time period,” she said. “Leaders at this time thought that church architecture was derivative and inauthentic, so they worked toward moral fervor. There was also feelings of ambiguity over the future, and the future of the church in the modern world, so Christianity needed a new form to speak to the modern person.

“Finally, practical and financial concerns drove the building projects with discussions of necessary programs and the need to keep costs down,” she said.

These themes, Buggeln noted, led to a triumph of modernism in Christian architecture as well as a desire for cultural relevance, specifically in how Christian symbols would be displayed in American society. Furthermore, these themes encouraged the use of new and cheaper building materials that became a great match for these new designs.

Buggeln pointed out that two main styles came forth in this period because there was no definitive solution to church planning: Revivalism – which allowed for auditorium style churches that were influenced by theatres, and Romanticism – which incorporated long rectangular spaces and historical references such as Roman columns and Gothic stain glass windows.

Buggeln also discussed the art inside the church, focusing on the cohesion between church architecture and the art in the liturgical space. American churches in the postwar era had to work with simpler buildings and with less resources than their European counterparts, so the sculptures, altars, stained glass and painted murals were radically different that art of earlier periods. Nonetheless, the churches still fulfilled their goal of creating effective and faithful communication of the grace of God, she said.

At the conclusion of the lecture, Buggeln noted that these buildings and the art within them are rich repositories of the ideas that reanimated American congregations in the postwar years.

“This was a significant, unique episode in American religious history and the way that faith took material form in these residential urban neighborhoods and the expanding suburbs gives us really quite revealing window into the religious culture of that place and time,” she said.

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