Quietly peeping out through a middle-class neighbourhood in South Minneapolis, stands a testament to the father-son bond of Eliel Saarinen and Eero Saarinen. The Christ Church Lutheran, built by Eliel Saarinen in 1949 and later expanded with the addition of an education wing designed by Eero Saarinen, redefines sacred spaces in its own way.
The ecclesiastical design was an outcome of the Great Depression and World War 2, when the new pastor, William A. Beuge discovered that a Gothic revival would cost them much more money. He learnt the merits of Scandinavian ecclesiastical design with its simplified lines and low construction costs and decided to go ahead with this approach. He contacted Eliel Saarinen for the project. Years later, he recalls his initial discussions with Saarinen, ‘I asked him if it were possible in a materialistic age like ours to do something truly spiritual. He soon showed me.‘
Eliel Saarinen was requested to build an honest church, which he did. With a truthful use of materials, light and sound, he created a stunning space with spiritual simplicity and tranquillity. He used these elements modestly and to their full capability to create a quietly meditative atmosphere.
As the building was taking form, people were satisfied that a factory was being built rather than a church, since it was a common architectural expression for religious buildings to be either Gothic or Romanesque revival. The plain rectangular volume of the church was nowhere near any such principles. As a response to this stereotypical thought, Saarinen remarked that ‘The gothic period expired in 1100. Each time produces its own style of architecture.‘
The rectangular church measures 130ft by 55ft by 35ft and uses steel framing into which multi-coloured bricks are clad. A buff coloured Mankato Dolomite is used for trimming. The east facade consists of four sculpted stone panels designed by William McVey, the upper wall surface of the south facade consists of three raised brick crosses and a 32-foot tall window that illuminates the chancel. One storey projections run along the two long sidewalls. With just these features, very minimal ornamentation is visible in the exteriors.
A bell tower rising to 88 ft, with a 33ft tall aluminium cross affixed to its top, is positioned in the South of the building. This tower is connected to the church through a glass-enclosed passageway. The concept of the vertically rising bell tower could be seen replicated in many future church designs.
This way, the church’s exterior with its honest use of materials and form, enhanced with textured surfaces, clean lines and a streamlined geometry, openly embraces modernism.
Stepping into the sanctuary, one feels the sensitivity and otherworldliness of the church. The interior material palette composed of rose coloured Chicago common brick, Winona travertine marble and woodwork with White oak and white pine provides a visual and mental soothing effect. The 20 rows of pews flanking around a central aisle provide seating for 600 congregants.
A curved brick wall washed lightly with white paint and consisting of a 16-foot high aluminium cross flanks the rear of the chancel. The 32-foot tall window illuminates the chancel and creates varying shadow effects with the cross. These shadows seem to be at play, constantly changing with the position and height of the sun. This light let in by the window is carefully modulated by the curved chancel wall and the wooden baffle to the seating area flanked by low ceiling side aisles, creating an intimate experience.
The translucent glass used in the sanctuary further tempers the eastern and southern light. This poetic usage and treatment of light is one mechanism through which Eliel tried to express the sacred.
Noted conductor Osmo Vänskä said of the church that ‘It’s a good place to play. The acoustics are good for music—for chamber music—and it’s a good place for the audience to listen. It’s a place not only for the congregation but also a venue for concerts.‘ Upon a closer look, one will notice that no two walls are parallel, the ceiling is slanted and the balcony railings are canted forward. The brick walls undulate to and fro gently, enhancing the acoustics of the sanctuary.
The perforated ceiling with sound absorption panels and void spaces has also been designed carefully for the same purpose. These subtle techniques reduce echoes while amplifying the sound of the congregation, creating a seamless acoustical effect.
Eliel Saarinen works through scales. He believes that the smaller objects in space like the Main cross, the Piscina, the altar and the font have architecturally nuanced the experiences of the congregants. With a stark change in material, he separated the space for The Baptistery. To enter the Baptistery, One steps down into the glossy-tiled floor bound by short low walls. The arrangement pattern of headers and stretchers of the brick are also played with to highlight certain elements or create a visual experience.
With this kind of play with materials, light, proportion and sound, Eliel Saarinen designed a simple, quiet and sacred space for the congregants.
Separated by a courtyard with a water fountain and elevated planters, lies the educational wing designed by Eero Saarinen a decade after his father’s death. Despite being the most loved architect who was at the peak of his careers, Eero accepted the project as he did not want any other architects building to take away the marvel of his father’s work. Eero Saarinen himself was easily capable of overshadowing the church but instead, he created a subtle and sensitive design. His project partner, Glen Paulsen recalls ‘the attempt was to create a totally related subordinate building to the inspiring mass of the church.‘
The education wing is a one storey building measuring 163ft × 124ft, under which lies a two-storey basement. The material palette and design features complement and go hand in hand with those used in the church. The main floor consists of classrooms, a kindergarten and an adult lounge and the basement consists of a gymnasium, a kitchen, a library, offices and multipurpose halls. Window walls, teak panelling and a fireplace with a stone surround are some notable features of the interiors. Most of the furniture has been brought from Herman Miller.
The floor-to-ceiling windows of the east facade open up to the residential life of the street. Eero Saarinen and Paulsen turned the interior hallway into a Windowed and sky-lit atrium and the main hallway into a glazed cloister. While the sanctuary itself aimed at creating an introverted space, the Education Wing was designed as an extroverted space that interacted with the context. The window walls look over across the courtyard into the chapel.
This way, Eero Saarinen brought into the project his architectural expression and style while also not dominating the site and remaining subordinate to the church.
The steep basement limited the height of the building at street level so that it does not tower over the main church. Hence, the bulk mass of the gymnasium does not contribute to the exterior of the Education Wing. Rounded skylights with a lower profile were used instead of a clerestory for the same purpose.
This method of burying the secondary activities to retain the significance of the church has also been applied to one of Eero Saarinen’s earlier projects, The North Christian Church. In both the projects, he made the secondary buildings feel subordinate to the main sanctuary and not dominate the site.
Sadly, The Christ Church Lutheran was the last project for both the architects. Six months after the Church was constructed, Eliel Saarinen passed away and Eero Saarinen passed away before he could witness the completed Educational wing. In 1977, the American Institute of Architects awarded Christ Church Lutheran its 25-year award and in 2009, the church was named a National Historic Landmark.
Since then, constant efforts have been made to preserve the church. Minor modifications have been done, like remodelling the church basement, including a handicap accessible restroom in the educational wing, minor changes to the metal flashing, etc. To date, the similar yet unique works of the father and son proudly stand side by side in the Minneapolis soils against the test of time, symbolising the lasting continuity of the father-son relationship.
Ozayr Saloojee. (2010). The Next Largest Thing : The spatial Dimensions of Liturgy in Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis. Nexus Network Journal, Volume 12 (2) , pp. 213-257. Available at : www.link.springer.com [ Accessed : 25th March 2021 ]
pls4e (2018). Christ Church Lutheran. [online]. Available at: www.saharchipedia.org/buildings/MN-01-053-0038 [Accessed : 25th March 2021]
Homesmsp.com. (2021). [online] Available at: https://homesmsp.com/2008/11/sundays-site-christ-church-lutheran-by-eliel-eero-saarinen.html [Accessed 25 Mar. 2021].
Mack, L., October 04, S. to the S.T. and Pm, 2008-6:20 (n.d.). Shining a light on Saarinen legacy. [online] Star Tribune. Available at: https://m.startribune.com/shining-a-light-on-saarinen-legacy/30190134/#:~:text=Eliel%20Saarinen [Accessed 26 Mar. 2021].
Holthausen, E. (n.d.). The Preservation of Christ Church Lutheran by MacDonald & Mack Architects. [online] Traditional Building. Available at: https://www.traditionalbuilding.com/projects/christ-church-lutheran-macdonald-mack-architects [Accessed 26 Mar. 2021].