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  • The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America by Gretchen Buggeln
  • Victoria M. Young (bio)
Gretchen Buggeln
The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
xxx + 346 pages, 144 black-and-white illustrations (color and black-and-white in Kindle edition).
ISBN: 978-081-669495-2, $140.00 HB
ISBN: 978-081-669496-9, $40.00 PB
Kindle, $34.76

As Americans recovered from World War II, they gravitated toward religion and the suburbs. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, for example, in seven of ten years [End Page 97] from 1960 to 1970, Americans spent more than $1 billion annually on the construction of sacred spaces. Gretchen Buggeln's The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America provides a place in historical scholarship for these understudied buildings. Buggeln connects daily life with religious life as she tells us about not only the church buildings but also the social and educational rooms, administrative offices, and recreational spaces that completed the complexes. Her introduction, "New Times, New Architecture: Making a Place for Religion in the Postwar Suburbs," reminds us of the pervasiveness of these sites as thousands were built in the postwar decades. Furthermore, the traditional, revival styles of the pre–World War II years gave way to an architecture inspired by modernism, as congregations sought designers who would create forms they thought were more appropriate to life after the war. The focus is on seventy-five examples from the Midwest, drawing on work completed mainly in the suburbs of Chicago and Minneapolis by three architects, Edward Dart of Barrington, Illinois; Edward Sövik of Northfield, Minnesota; and Charles Stade of Park Ridge, Illinois. All were leaders in the field of ecclesiastical design, although their work has not been well documented until this book.

In order to set the stage for the buildings, Buggeln devotes the first chapter, "The Modern Church Movement," to a discussion of the rise of modernism in the design of sacred space worldwide, but particularly in the United States. After World War II, pamphlets, books, journals, conferences, travel, and lectures informed architects and clients about the importance of an architectural style that responded to the present day. Architects who designed churches found professional support through new groups including the Church Architecture Guild (founded 1940), the American Institute of Architects' Committee on Religious Architecture (founded 1958), and the Chicago-based American Society for Church Architecture (begun in 1956).1 Dart, Stade, and Sövik all served key roles in these groups. They also gave talks at national theological and architectural conferences, penned articles for design and religious journals, and had their work showcased within those same pages.

In chapter 2, "The 'Form-Givers' of Suburban Religion: Three Midwestern Architects," Buggeln provides an insightful look into the lives of Dart, Stade, and Sövik. She traces their formative years, from youth on to architecture school; explores the significance of travel and mentors on their work; and considers their approach to design. Sövik took delight in the theological and philosophical underpinnings of built form, writing many articles and books about sacred space centered on "kerygma," a term meaning "proclamation and witness" (35), which he saw as the central tenet of his religious architecture. Kerygma was part of his idea for church buildings to serve as "non-churches" with a flexible space that enabled "a congregation to serve its community's multiple and changing worship, fellowship, and service needs" (32).2 Dart believed in the beauty of an "architecture of strength and earthy integrity" (41); in basic materials like brick, tile, wood, and concrete; and in forms inspired by pure geometry. His works bear the imprint of his time in architecture school at Yale University, where he came into contact with modernists including Pietro Belluschi, Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra, Louis Kahn, and Eero Saarinen. Stade set himself apart not only by the number of church complexes he designed but also by his writings, speeches, and leadership in various religious groups. His preference for exposed natural materials, attention to light, and sensible use of space grounded his designs. Modernism as a style guided all three men, but so...


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