Church of Reconciliation
Originally published in Texas Architect, July/August 1983
The Church of Reconciliation in San Antonio both acknowledges and extends a longstanding tradition of centrally planned churches. From Bramante’s plan for St. Peter’s or Borromini’s Sant’ Ivo to Eero Saarinen’s Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, or Louis Kahn’s Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York, the centralized plan has been called upon, not only to focus attention on a spiritual locus so crucial to Christianity, but also to accommodate, with some intimacy, the functional requirements of congregational assembly. At its best, the type creates an impressive confluence of function, meaning and architectural form which seems particularly appropriate to the practices of contemporary worship.
Like so many of its precedents, Ford, Powell & Carson’s Church of Reconciliation begins with a simple geometric shape in plan-in this case a square. Inside the square are inscribed a second, concentric square, a 12-sided polygon and a circle in a manner particularly reminiscent of Kahn’s early schemes for his Rochester Church. The inscribed square is capped by a cleanly detailed, eaveless pyramidal roof reiterating in section the elemental and nodal character of the plan.
The interior space of the church essentially echoes its exterior form. Four squat masonry piers anchor the corners of the plan, leaving a residual Greek cross shape which is occupied primarily by the sanctuary. At the broad crossing a shallow drum, polygonal on the outside and cylindrical inside, is hung from the roof. Functionally, the drum houses mechanical systems and a sophisticated audiovisual capacity as well as a catwalk for systems access and operation. Visually, it focuses all energy in the room on the central altar – a massive square surface supported by a cruciform base and placed on a raised circular platform. Consistent with Episcopal liturgy in general and this congregation’s beliefs in particular, communion is vividly designated as the central act of worship.
This is, as one member notes, a church “family.” The symbolic expression of “communion” in their building easily can be seen to represent more than just the Christian sacrament. There is a desired sharing and participation among members which began at the inception of the congregation and which certainly was evident in the planning and construction of their building.
Members are proud to point to the work of their own hands, reflected in the carefully crafted structure. One parishioner obtained a donation of salvaged stone. Others invested sweat equity to bring the stone to the site. Still other members made the simple, craftsman-like baptismal font, candle-holders, altar cloths and yards of needlepoint, needed to cover the kneeling cushions around the altar.
All of these contributions of the congregation are beautifully integrated into the design of the church. The stone is prominently displayed in massive, crafty masonry walls. Interior accessories complement and accentuate the architect-designed interior environment, producing an elegant, almost ascetic character.
In its simple, unpretentious way, the Church of Reconciliation expresses the beliefs of its institution. There is an air of spirituality, communion, participation and unaffected sincerity. This modest suburban church elevates its type to admirable and unusual standards of quality and appropriateness.