SAH Blog

Saint Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church: Modernity and Continuity

By Jason John Paul Haskins, Assoc. AIA, LEED BD+C
Feb 20, 2014


Note: This article originally appeared in the Docomomo US newsletter.


Robert Mather brought an impressive Modernist pedigree to the design of St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas (1958-1960). This Mid-century abstraction of the primitive Christian basilica represents a synthesis of international movements in architecture and liturgy uncovering archetypal models of inhabitation and ritual. The church will be featured on the upcoming tour “Modernity and Continuity in Austin's Religious Architecture” during the Society of Architectural Historians Annual Conference in Austin, Texas, April 9-13, 2014.
 
St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. 
Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. 1960.
Credit: PICA 25856, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
 
The Problem of the Modern Church
Even the most consciously Modern church struggles to escape some reference to precedent.[1] Religion is too steeped in tradition and encodes images too essential to escape in the interpretation even if absent from the design concept. For example, the highly functional a-frame structure famously employed by architects such as Frank Lloyd WrightEero Saarinen, and A. Quincy Jones[2] drew comparisons to scripture-based formal archetypes of tent and boat regardless of the architects' intentions. As countless congregations across the country replicated the form in the 1950s–70s, they described it in the more evocative impressions of praying hands or, according to Architectural Forum in 1954, "the warm, neighborly personality, the humble aspiration and some of the medieval magic" of the old north country village Gothic.[3]
 
Such evocations of tradition and magic, social rejections of religion, and the secularization of the movement’s predominantly commercial-industrial building programs illustrate that the Modern church proved problematic for both the Moderns and the Church. What becomes of functionalism in a program that includes symbolism? And yet for all the incongruities there were also timely confluences. The canon of Modern religious architecture reveals precisely the numinous potential of formal abstraction and of purity of space, light, and material. Meanwhile, movements among Christian denominations led to analogous refinements in worship, buildings, and theology based in ancient practice.
 
Saint Martins Evangelical Lutheran Church
Changes surrounded the design for St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas. In 1957, St. Martin’s occupied a neo-Gothic stone-clad concrete structure that stood out proudly as the most prominent building between the dome of the State Capitol and the tower of the University of Texas Main Building. The congregation hired the local firm Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven (later Jessen Associates) to expand their campus to meet the needs of the growing church.


Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. George Louis Walling. 1929.
Credit: C01129, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
 
In January the congregation approved the architects’ plans for an education wing, offices and fellowship hall designed to continue the traditional Gothic flavor of the church. But less than three months later, the state announced plans to extend the Capitol Complex and take over the church property despite previously agreeing to a parking-sharing arrangement that enabled the church’s plans to proceed with city.[4] The congregation and their architects found themselves suddenly building from the ground up instead of extending an established traditional language. They made the bold decision to pursue a modern abstraction of the early Christian basilica. The church celebrated a ground breaking service in September 1958 and dedicated the church on March 27, 1960.
 
The Dedication service used for St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin reflects changes underway in the structure and worship of the Lutheran Church in the United States. Amidst a liturgical transition, the service included a unique populist variation: the congregation assumed what was typically the Pastor’s action of the dedication prayer itself, repeating the response, “we dedicate this house.”[5] On a national level, a Commission on the Liturgy and Hymnal representing the cooperation of eight Lutheran bodies published a new Common Liturgy in 1958. Two years later, three of these bodies merged to form The American Lutheran Church. Whereas the nineteenth century saw Lutheran churches in the United States splitting into smaller factions and divided by national origins, the movement of the twentieth century was toward unity based at least in part on their liturgical retour aux sources.
 
Liturgy & Architecture
The new Common Liturgy was rooted in “deepened scholarship and broader fellowship, the rich treasury of ecumenical liturgy, … the ancient and medieval Christian Church, both East and West, and grounded on the historic German, Scandinavian and American uses,” and “a vision clearer than was sometimes possible in the turmoil of the Reformation controversy.”[6] Such scholarship was part of a larger movement among many Christian denominations where the desire to strip away the cultural accretions and excesses of the preceding centuries—but not to start tabula rasa—allowed for the rediscovery of essential forms.[7]
 
A similar rediscovery of essential forms followed in the church's architecture. German Roman Catholic architect Rudolph Schwarz worked closely with liturgical theologians to develop his Vom Bau de Kirche (1938; translated in English as The Church Incarnate in 1958) with its seven plans. Each of the plans represents an archetypal spatial metaphor of the church a rediscovery of not only diverse ancient practices but the very gesture of the Body of Christ assembled. However, Schwarz demonstrated that each plan on its own is insufficient and suggested with the final plan a juxtaposition of their diversity.[8]
 
Robert George Mather
The synthesis of the liturgical, denominational, and architectural changes at St. Martin’s was predominantly the work of the principal designer, Robert George Mather (1921-1984), who brought an impressive Modernist pedigree and an international perspective to the project. During his studies at IIT under Mies van der Rohe, he "certainly learned discipline in drawing, creativity in graphics, integrity and efficiency of structure, and could apply his already acquired care for details in joinery with reward, as it was so fundamental to Mies' teaching" who fostered “the notion of huge, bare efficiently structured, and rationally proportioned edifices as being the architectural ideal, even beautiful.”[9]
 
Mather worked for Walter Gropius and partners at The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge for six months before embarking with his wife Jean on an exploration of the Middle East, Pakistan and India, East and North Africa, and Europe. When their money ran out in Stockholm, they worked in architecture and planning offices there until earning enough to return to the states. Robert Mather turned down a position as planner with Caudill Rowlett and Scott, opting to move to Austin for more architectural experience. He worked in the Jessens’ office for only one year, which was dedicated to the development and detailing of St. Martin’s, before transitioning to a long academic career at the University of Texas.
 
These experiences coalesced into a design at the forefront of the world-wide movements of modern architecture and ecclesiology. The IIT influence manifested in the structural integrity and techtonic detail of the exposed steel structure and free façade.


Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. 1960.
Credit: Jason John Paul Haskins, 2013.
 
The design relates more to the more contemporary post-war reconstruction underway in Germany than the American suburban expansion. The continental connection was appropriate for a church founded as a German Lutheran congregation. Archival materials from the design process reference a book of new churches in the Archdiocese of Cologne[10] featuring the work of Rudolph & Maria Schwarz, Dominikus & Gottfried Böhm, and others.
 
Mather likely knew of The Church Incarnate, with its foreword written by Mies van der Rohe. But whether through direct influence or parallel confluence, St. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran church successfully juxtaposes the diverse principles represented by multiple Schwarz plans. It combines the linearity of the Sacred Way with the inward movement of enclosure toward the altar / outward expansion into the world of the Dark Chalice without a formal dependence on their diagrams. Its sense of outward expansion comes not only from the increase in stained glass moving from the altar to the door but also from the decomposition of its planes and outward motion of its composition.
 
Historical Continuity in Post-war Modernism
As in the liturgical movement, the Modern movement in architecture rediscovered essential forms as represented by Sigfried Giedion’s emphasis on “constituent facts” against “transitory facts" in establishing a new tradition.[11] But Modern architects began to increasingly reintroduce certain components of tradition when—after the tragedies of the Second World War and the apparent failures of implementation of CIAM Athens Charter—some of the appeal of the utopian tabula rasa had worn off.[12] But they drew from traditions in which they recognized the universal principles of the earlier Modernist manifestos. For example, some recognized their principles in the North American vernaculars.[13] Christian architects looked to the recently unearthed pre-Constantinian churches, such as that at Duras-Europos.


Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. 1960.
Credit: Jason John Paul Haskins, 2013. The apse wall behind the altarpiece in this photo replaced the original curtain and tester as part of a 1990s renovation.
 
Likewise the mode of the continuity was not the figural ornamentation or stylistic references of the preceding centuries; it was through spatial metaphor or social action. Rather than reflecting the primitive Christian basilica in style, the design of St. Martin’s builds on its ritual action of processional linearity. An austere brick planarity juxtaposed with the retained Gothic altarpiece replaces the inward focus of the apse with its mosaic depiction of the exterior other of heaven. The cellular structure of vaulted naves and aisles gives way to a tripartite plate folded into a planar barrel vault crowning the basilica. The geometric purity of the hemispherical vault with its impossible thinness embodied a structural minimalism further accentuated by the slipping past of floating planes.[14] Modern military vernacular reminiscent of so many nomadic dwellings made possible its efficiency: it was built from an off-the-shelf mass-produced Stran-Steel Quonset hut. Truly swords into plowshares.[15]
 
A Modern Symbology in Stained Glass
The stained glass windows in St. Martin's Evangelical church are figural, but they are modern insomuch as their symbols emphasize universally recognizable objects abstracted to the essential geometric form of their use and manufacture. Many are traditional Christian symbols, but their particular meaning is not dependent upon a closed historic system. In this way they are like Le Corbusier's objets types in his early still life paintings and architectural photographs which grew into the more explicitly spiritual La Poème de lAngle Droit or projections for the Philips Pavilion.


Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. 1960.
Credit: Jason John Paul Haskins, 2013.
 
These distinct symbols were set in abstract flowing patterns modeled on the windows of the Dominikus Böhm-designed Maria-Koenigin Kirche, Köln-Marienburg (1953) and executed by the Botz-Miesen Stained Glass Studio of Cologne.[16] When the original intention to re-set the stained glass symbols from the 1929 Gothic church became technically impossible, the new suite of 57 symbols were designed with input from the pastors "to conform with the liturgy of St. Martin’s Evangelical Church.”[17] In this liturgical context and with content derived from Christ's teachings and social ministry, the objets types recall the familiarity and fundamental simplicity of the illustrative objects of the parables.
 
Conclusion
St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church is an excellent example of the nascent post-war modernism that sought to reincorporate traditions sharing in its constituent facts. By balancing distinctly modern developments and a commitment to retaining continuity with tradition, it was able to fully satisfy the complicated brief of the modern church with its symbolic functions, liturgical movements, and social changes.
 
Jason John Paul Haskins, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a church-building researcher and design consultant who writes about liturgy, architecture and history on the blog Locus Iste (http://locusiste.org).



[1] Ludwig Mies van der Rohe provided a notable exception in the Robert F. Carr Memorial Chapel of St. Savior on the campus of IIT (1952) where its uniformity with the rest of the campus buildings—regardless of type—reinforces the concept of universal space, but ultimately compromises its function as a religious space.
[2] First Unitarian Society, Madison, WI, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1951; Kramer Chapel at Concordia Senior College, Ft Wayne, IN, Eero Saarinen, 1953-58; St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Pacific Palisades, CA, A. Quincy Jones, 1953.
[3] “The Tent Form–A Village Gothic for Today.” (Dec. 1954). Architectural Forum 101(6), 128-131). For further discussion of this form in the Midwest, see Gretchen Buggeln’s lecture, “The Rise and Fall of the Postwar A-Frame Church” available online.
[4] Danforth, F. M. (1984). Gods Century at St. Martins: A Pictorial History of St. Martins Evangelical Lutheran Church. Austin, TX.
[5] St. Martins Evangelical Lutheran Church Dedication. Pamphlet. (1960, March 27).
[6] Preface to the Liturgy. In Service Book and Hymnal. (1974). Minneapolis,MN: Ausburg Publishing House.
[7] This was at the heart of Dom Gregory Dix’s monumental work The Shape of the Liturgy (1945), which traced the shared frameworks in the primitive development of Christian worship.
[8] Despite this, The Church Incarnate was employed as a form book, even, it has been argued, by Schwarz himself. A notable examples in the United States of the most recognizable plan, the parabolic “Dark Chalice,” is Resurrection of the Lord, St. Louis, Murphy & Mackey, 1952.
[9] Swallow R. P. (1987). Robert George Mather: In Memoriam 1921-1984. MATHR Box 1. Robert G. Mather Papers. The Alexander Architectural Archive. The University of Texas Libraries. The University of Texas at Austin. An abbreviated version of the memorial is available online.
[10] Weyres, W. Neue Kirchen Im Erzbistum Köln, 1945-1956. Du?sseldorf: Verlag L. Schwann.
[11] Giedion, S. (1967). Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. First publication in 1941.
[12] Proctor, R. (2005). Churches for a Changing Liturgy: Gillespie, Kidd & Coia and the Second Vatican Council. Architectural History, 48, 291-322.
[13] Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture (1957), Aldo van Eyk’s inclusion of pueblos in his foundational Otterlo Circles (1959), and the 1964 MOMA exhibit ‘Architecture without Architects.’
[14] A thicker steel frame was as used in place of the quonset ribs in the later Jessen Associates project for St. Ignatius Martyr, Austin, which has a similar roof profile but little of the finesse of St. Martin’s.
[15] Decker, J., Chiei, C. (Ed.), (2005). Quonset Hut: Metal Living for a Modern Age. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press. When the Great Lakes Steel Corporation took over the quonset hut construction from the Navy in 1942, they introduced an innovate design that allowed the roof deck to be nailed into the steel rib. They also began marketing for civilian uses immediately. Bruce Goff pushed the architectural applications of quonset huts. For other churches built from the structures, see Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Abbey in Hunstville, UT or Our Lady of the Way, Haines Junction, Yukon Territory.
[16] Botz-Miesen also executed stained glass windows with a very similar design for St. Dominic, New Orleans, Irving Kohler, 1961.
[17] Vandeveerdonk, H. J. (1958, December 18). Letter to Wolf Jessen. Box 10, Folder 17. Jessen Associates Inc. Records and Drawings. Austin History Center. Austin, TX.

1 comment

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  1. JR | Apr 09, 2014
    Did the State, then, raze the 1929 church? 

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