The “radical new forms” of yesterday’s places of worship – The Globe and Mail | Ad On Picture

In a video posted to YouTube by IncMedia last month, parishioners at Iglesia Ni Cristo (Church of Christ) can be seen with huge smiles entering their newly acquired edifice — a 1962 building by architect Donald N. Chapman in association with Reverend Victor Fiddes – go their faces. Lead Deacon Daniel Laja can be seen pointing to various features as he walks down the nave while others join him to take it all in. The high-ceilinged room is very beautiful, with an intricate, abstract wooden screen behind the altar, wall decorations, thin, round windows, and others made of sturdy chocolate, taupe, and buff brick.

One can enjoy the rhythm of the window placement, the various cladding options, notably the accordion-shaped panels in the Roman Catholic St. Denis in St. Catharines, and the modernist elements that were not only intended for places of worship.Jonathan Castellino

Perhaps he’s smiling because with less formal, paired modernist church architecture, it’s not hard to project one’s claims onto it. Before the Church of Christ bought the Niagara Falls building, it was actually owned by Battlefield Gospel Church.

“Before the Second World War [builders] would adhere to these prescribed styles, as does architecture in general,” says heritage planner Nigel Molaro. “If it’s Gothic, maybe you could tell it’s a Protestant church or maybe a Catholic one.”

In 2014, when Iglesia Ni Cristo was still Lundy’s Lane United Church, Mr Molaro asked permission to walk around the grounds, see the 20 meter high bell tower and matching barrel vault and the hand-forged copper front doors with a painting by Tony Urquhart, and browse through it. It was all part of a larger study of 14 mid-century places of worship in the Niagara region. Sacred Modern: Places of Worship on the Niagara Peninsula 1950-70, during the last year of his three-year diploma at the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts in Queenston.

“I’ve always been interested in places of worship,” begins the 36-year-old, who admits that despite growing up Presbyterian, he hasn’t attended a church service in a while. “I have a sort of awe in these spaces of ritual, gathering, and contemplation, and I’ve probably spent as much time looking at the architecture as I did listening to a sermon.”

The post-war period, he continues, is an interesting choice as there is an “intersection” between old and new. Indeed, some religious groups, sensing a battle with television for the attention of churchgoers, stipulated that all new buildings should be equally futuristic. “We carry on all these functions and traditions from the past despite these radically new forms and shapes… and we also see many traditional materials and details, but expressed in new ways, and stained glass is a great example.”

True: at Trinity United in Grimsby (Bruce Brown & Brisley, 1958) the stained glass windows resemble a Piet Mondrian painting; at St. Andrew’s United in Niagara Falls (Bruce Brown & Brisley, 1961) they take on harlequin forms; in St. Catharines’ Trillium United (Macbeth & Williams, 1960) it is trapezoids; and yonder in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Alfred in St. Catharines, some of the windows are decorated with abstract, pastel-like swirls of purple, blue, and yellow.

St. Alfred’s, on the corner of Vine Street and Carlton Street, is the one building that nearly slowed me down when I visited eight of Mr. Molaro’s subjects last week. With its sweeping roofline, rounded walls, and flying saucer-like extension clad in fieldstone, it gives, as Mr. Molaro describes, “the impression of something otherworldly.” Designed by Hamilton-based architect Frank H. Burcher (1923-2010), considered Ontario’s longest-practicing architect, the composition has an almost Googie-like feel – Googie being the name used to describe the offbeat To describe Los Angeles coffee shops, bowling alleys and car washes – because the building itself is the billboard and as such can be seen from the windshield of a speeding car.

The same is true of the Roman Catholic St. Thomas More in Niagara Falls (Arthur B. Scott, 1958). Except that what really catches the eye here is the incredible height and zoom angle of the traditional pediment. Had I noticed that the doors were unlocked (which I didn’t) I could have ogled the impressive wooden arches inside. Luckily, after completing his survey, Mr. Molaro enlisted the help of photographer Jonathan Castellino to document the interiors.

One indoor venue I was able to gain access to was at Trinity United in Grimsby. I tugged at the door to find it open and, as cautiously as possible, stepped into the massive sanctuary to admire the orderly rows of tiny square windows that pierced the walls and the wooden ceiling at least 30 feet above my head.

“I’m glad you agreed to it,” says Mr. Molaro, laughing. “This was designed by a company that specializes in church buildings… Bruce Brown & Brisley, and they had their own liturgical designer, so they really offered the full range of services for these spaces.”

But as I’ve learned during my short stay in each place, you don’t have to set foot inside. With a simple tour one can appreciate the rhythm of the window placement, the various cladding options – I particularly liked the accordion-shaped panels in the Roman Catholic St Denis in St Catharines – and the modernist elements found not only in places of worship, such as B. curtain walls or folded roof lines and canopies. And if the appetite is whetted, there’s Doublespace Photography’s (doublespacephoto.com) ‘Fifty/50’ study alongside Mr. Molaro’s page, or, heaven forbid, you could even attend a church service.

Time is of the essence, however, as many of these buildings are over 60 years old and could soon be demolished or renovated beyond recognition. “My generation of heritage planners and heritage practitioners, we actually have to engage with these places, they’ve come of age,” concludes Mr. Molaro. “And so that’s going to be an important part of what my colleagues and I do.”


For Sacred Modern: Places of Worship on the Niagara Peninsula 1950–70, see https://tinyurl.com/2p8f2kur

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