“Quietly There” : The Spatial Dimension of Liturgy in Eliel Saarinen’s Final Built Work – Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.

Ozayr Saloojee is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Minnesota. He studied at Carleton University in Ottawa and taught there for five years while working as an associate for GHDG, a design group that focused on cultural/religious projects across Canada and the USA. His research interests focus on Islamic art and architecture and on contested landscapes. He is currently completing a book on Eliel Saarinen’s Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #12 – Autumn 2009

Written into the National Register of Historic Places, Eliel Saarinen’s Christ Church Lutheran has been hailed as the architectural project that heralded a new direction for ecclesiastic architecture in the United States. Completed in 1949, Saarinen’s sanctuary sits – in the words of his grand-daughter Susan Saarinen – ‘quietly there.’ It is an unprepossessing building from the exterior, a massing of simple rectangular forms, faced with Chicago brick and Mankato Stone, occupying the corner of a calm residential area in Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood. It’s exterior belies it’s interior and it demonstrates Eliel Saarinen’s skill of articulating a dialogue between interiority and exteriority as well as the scale of experience as an essential part of liturgy and of architectural choreography as an evocative catalyst for a deep and personal sense of spirituality.
Figure 1, Church Exterior

Recommended by Roy Jones, head of the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota, Saarinen was approached by the congregation shortly after World War II. Pastor William Beuge wrote a challenging letter to Saarinen, who was still head of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, where he asked him if it were possible in a materialistic age like ours to do something truly spiritual.
The building was Eliel Saarinen’s last work (he attended the opening in 1949, but died shortly after in July 1950). Years later, his son Eero Saarinen accepted the commission to design the addition to his father’s church with the close assistance of Glen Paulsen. Eero Saarinen died in 1962 before the addition was completed.
At the height of his career, Eero, the architect of the TWA Flight Center and the St. Louis Arch, would ultimately produce one of the most understated projects of his career in the addition to Christ Church. In 1953 he observed that “I often contributed technical solutions and plans, but only within the concept that he created. A better name for architect is ‘form-giver’ and until his death in 1950, when I started to create my own form, I worked within the form of my father.”1 With his addition to Eliel’s church, Eero celebrated the work of his father with a deferential, but not architecturally mimetic, design for the Education wing addition to Christ Church. The tall volume of Eliel Saarinen’s sanctuary, with it’s 5 story campanile and careful attention to the quality of light, is asymmetrically balanced with the low-slung, open massing of Eero’s and Paulsen’s addition.
Figure 2: Education wing addition, exterior

Skillful architects design for effect and to affect – without compromising the technical requirements of a space or the experiential qualities that give it it’s unique, intangible life. Eliel Saarinen did precisely this at Christ Church because he understood the connectedess of worship to a physical space and that architecture is more than simply structure and material. He understood the interrelatedness of experience, of ‘effect’ and ‘cause;’ the essential connection between worship and architecture; the connotative before the denotative and the implicit before the explicit. Saarinen was a master of scale – his work includeds a range of projects from city designs and buildings to furniture and fixtures.
This range of scales is embedded in Christ Church in many ways – in its spaces, liturgical objects, materials and surfaces. It is also apparent in the ineffable qualities of the building; the manner that music surrounds visitors, how a monumental experience of space is made personal and intimate and the subtle and deeply poetic way in which light is treated and used.

In the Lutheran tradition, God’s Grace comes by faith alone, through Christ alone – Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus. In Christ Church Lutheran light is something that is embraced as both a catalyst for spiritual reflection and as a spiritual device that connects with the movements of Lutheran liturgical practice. Echoing Rudolf Schwarz’s ideas regarding new forms of ecclesiastical architecture in his 1934 text, the Church Incarnate, and perhaps even inspired by Schwarz’s architectural work, Eliel Saarinen’s design of Christ is a spectacular and serene architectural experience. This is achieved largely through a nuanced play of materials, subtle interior geometries and a careful attention to the luminous design of the building. At Christ Church Lutheran, light – connotatively and denotatively – revolves around liturgy. The Lutheran liturgy is composed of four movements – Gathering, Word, Meal and Sending, and Saarinen wove an experiential understanding of the liturgy into the architectural choreography of the building. The way congregants assemble and are directed toward the chancel and its spectacular cross and pulpit; the approach of the faithful towards the altar along the carefully angled side aisle windows – darkened in approach and luminous upon their return, all demonstrate Eliel Saarinen’s thoughtful and serene reconciliation of space and sacrament.

Eliel Saarinen would have been familiar with this liturgy. His father, Juho Saarinen, was himself a Lutheran minister, tending to congregations in Finland and Russia. The Lutheran liturgy is organized by four particular movements: Gathering, Word, Meal and Sending. These movements are evident in many ways at Christ Church Lutheran, and they overlap through both the material and immaterial qualities of the building. They serve as a touchstone for an experience of this building and demonstrate how deftly Saarinen responded to liturgy with a senstive architectural eye. His precise and experiential awareness of light and sound (Christ Church has been called the finest example of acoustic finesse in modern architecture) demonstrate his poetic sensibility in linking space to liturgy.

Christ Church Lutheran served in part, as the culmination of Eliel Saarinen’s personal search for form. William Beuge’s question to Saarinen whether it was possible to build something spiritual in a material age was answered by the Pastor when he reflected on his experience in the newly dedicated building – “He soon showed me.”

Figure 5. The Sanctuary seen through Eero Saarinen’s addition. Photograph copyright, Peter Sieger, AIA and Tom Dolan. Used with permission of the the photographers.