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Temples for a Modern God: Religious Architecture in Postwar America by Jay M. Price (review)

From: American Catholic Studies
Volume 124, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 67-69 | 10.1353/acs.2013.0060

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Reviewed by
Temples for a Modern God: Religious Architecture in Postwar America. By Jay M. Price. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 256pp. $74.00.

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At the outset of his fascinating study, Jay Price notes accurately that existing literature on mid-century modern church architecture has avoided the vernacular houses of worship that exist in almost every postwar suburb in favor of great works by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Pietro Belluschi. Alternately, literature on these [End Page 67] churches is polemical, considering them as positive or negative examples of a certain type of theology and worship style. Price’s work, at once affectionate and analytical, begins to fill an important gap, exploring the genesis of churches on which growing congregations across the United States expended literally billions of dollars in a postwar building boom.

Price’s focus is on the social history of building, concentrating on networks of architects and denominational bodies and on changes in theology and worship styles that evolved in concert with these buildings. This is a book for those who are interested in the interplay between the technological (building techniques), the social (the elaboration of church bureaucracies), and the aesthetic. From the trivia of denominational building offices and Church Property Administration magazine, Price captures the spirit of excitement and innovation that drove the builders of this “underappreciated legacy” (114) of mid-century modern churches and synagogues, as well as the complexity of the issues they raised and the confusion they generated as they felt their way forward. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews all participated in this movement, which also forged bonds of friendship and alliance between modernists both abroad and in the United States. Price covers the interdenominational quest to “raise standards” in religious architecture; the development of what Richard Kieckhefer calls the “modern communal” type of church building; the rise of professional church-building consultants and other experts; the fraught conversation on whether or not these buildings “looked like churches”; and the 1960s movement to “stop building cathedrals.” As these quotations from chapter titles suggest, Price illuminates postwar church builders’ multiple and interconnected anxieties about aesthetics, ecclesiology, and the role of religion in modern American life.

This is a relatively short book on an enormous topic, and naturally there are lacunae. From a Catholic Studies point of view, the strength of Price’s work is his situation of Catholic modernist building in its ecumenical context, as Catholics both taught and learned from [End Page 68] Protestant architects and pastors, sharing literature and conference podiums. But overall the focus of the book is more on Protestants than on Catholics, and Price’s analysis of Catholic ecclesiastical politics is less detailed. More troubling, the photograph section is both very small and badly printed; many of the images are in such heavy shadow that it is nearly impossible to make out details. Although Price is not an architectural critic, this is still a serious problem, as readers wanting to get a sense of how these buildings are experienced will need to track down better visuals elsewhere.

Recommended for graduate classes and libraries.

Catherine R. Osborne
Franklin & Marshall College
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