Tuesday, June 14, 2016

30 Modernist Detroit Churches

(originally published 6/14/16 in Infinite Mile)

One of Detroit's most celebrated architectural assets is its remarkable collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century churches. Designed to mimic Medieval styles, such structures impress with their soaring spires, grand facades and elaborate ornament. They are understood to be local treasures, sites of distinction. Tours are given, books are written, holding them up.

Less celebrated are the city's numerous modernist churches, built in the middle of the twentieth century.

The turn toward modernism in religious architecture here, as elsewhere, was a turn against "historicism," seen as false, and toward the then-contemporary (the true). The authors of Modern Church Architecture, an international survey published in 1962, characterize this shift:
Nineteenth century revivalists chose to adopt the medieval cathedral as the apogee of the Christian architectural form. But we must realize that in contemporary building, historicism cannot be legitimate. Our building materials are different from those of the old masters. The play of vault against buttress, the daring originality of thin walls and large openings—making possible the marvelous flowering of stained glass—became in our time the dead weight of steel columns, plaster vaults painted to simulate stone, buttresses that buttressed nothing. Indeed, they were themselves buttressed by the steel columns. This miserable deception in a place where truth reigns supreme!
Modernist churches, of course, are but one species of the genus Modernism, one facet of a sprawling, decades-long socio-architectural project that touched buildings of all kinds. And so they follow fundamental precepts that also governed the design of schools, banks, offices, single- and multi-family homes, libraries, gas stations, funeral parlors, post offices, police stations and more. Namely: simplicity, functionality and the construction of pure geometric forms and volumes out of the mass-produced materials of the modern (machine) age.

There are modernist buildings of all types dating from the 1930s to the 1970s all over Detroit. Many have seen better days and are neglected, their clean lines crumbling. The churches, however, tend to be in relatively good shape. They are, after all, beloved spaces, safeguarded over the decades by the Detroiters to whom they mean so much.


My husband and I like to drive around the city sometimes, depositing ourselves in unfamiliar neighborhoods, where we drift, taking arbitrary turns and marveling at what we find. While such auto-mediated dérives, taken over the ten years we've lived in Detroit, have reinforced the city's essential incomprehensibility, they have also helped me better understand it. I've learned a thing or two about Detroit during these drives, including the extent and breadth of its modern church architecture. I find myself actively looking for these buildings now. I am drawn to them, even more than to the earlier, revivalist cathedrals.

The photographs collected here depict thirty churches, located clear across Detroit's 142 square miles. They are modest or magnificent, well known or obscure. They are situated in dense residential or commercial neighborhoods, or else they stand apart. The photos are arranged, somewhat arbitrarily, by the churches' ZIP codes.

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