The postwar suburban American church is a complicated subject. Religious buildings occupy a typological history largely driven by the interpretation of monuments, yet these churches tend instead toward a kind of mainstream vernacular. Their unassuming modernity challenges presumptions both of a heroic modernism overcoming tradition and of a conception of sacred space reliant on drama and transcendence. That they were built by congregations often newly formed as part of the postwar flight from cities makes relevant the many sources of contemporaneous and later criticism of suburban culture, from racial segregation to alienating sprawl to housewife drudgery and reactionary conformity in the face of a growing counterculture. Without a doubt, sociopolitical critique of suburban culture is part of the story, yet on its own it risks obscuring the actual experiences of those involved in designing, building, and using these places. The full story must engage both.
In The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America, Gretchen Buggeln offers a solid, meticulously researched account of how these churches came to be, how their congregations understood and valued them, and (implicitly) how these experiences may complicate negative views of suburban culture driven by sociopolitical critique. Rich in detail, conveyed through lucid narratives and compelling anecdotes, and drawing throughout on archival documents and relevant contemporaneous discourses, this study approaches the subject with multiple frames and at changing scales. As the author clarifies at the outset, her aim is to produce not a “comprehensive history” but a “representative survey of architects, buildings, and congregations” (xxvi). To this end, the core of the book is found in six chapters that move among these topics with ease despite shifts in perspective and focus. In “The ‘Form-Givers’ of Suburban Religion: Three Midwestern Architects,” Buggeln introduces the three figures whose ideas and practices root her survey: Edward Sövik (1918–2014), Edward Dart (1922–75), and Charles Stade (1923–93). She demonstrates their relevance as exemplars in the larger context of suburban church design in the 1950s and 1960s with clear synopses of their careers, explications of their characteristic ideas, and analyses of key commissions. The following chapter, “From Dream to Dedication: The Shared Work of Church Building,” attends to the congregations themselves to explore in depth the common trajectory underlying the realization of these buildings, including local building committees, fund-raising efforts, collaborations in the design process, and the use of volunteer labor during construction. Of special note here are the background concerns about the status and future of religion at a time of increased secularization and social change, as well as the need to proceed in practical and flexible ways (e.g., by constructing multipurpose “first units,” to which additional buildings would be added when possible). Buggeln then presents an excellent minihistory in a chapter titled “The A-Frame Church: Symbol of an Era.” As a formal and material type, the A-frame, with its rapid yet short-lived popularity, illustrates how architectural solutions can be driven as much by expediency as by expressive potential. The too-neat synthesis of tectonic clarity, theological symbolism, and constructive economy was soon regarded as dated and simplistic.
In the following three chapters, Buggeln pulls back by stages to consider first the sacred space of the sanctuary, then the fuller life of the congregation through church-campus education and fellowship facilities, and finally the broader neighborhood community. In “The Suburban Sanctuary: A House for the Worshipping Community” she outlines the distinct contributions to ecclesiastical typology made by Sövik, Stade, and Dart, of which Sövik's concept of a decidedly functional and nonmonumental “non-church” is especially revealing of the problems of creating modern sacred space. Buggeln adopts a sociological approach in “Living and Learning as a Suburban Church Family: Modern Spaces for Education and Fellowship,” describing the multifaceted nature of suburban church life, including its involvement in far more than Sunday worship services and its provision of real places of belonging and refuge in the midst of instability. And all of this is brought to bear on the book's penultimate chapter, “Religion, Architecture, and Community in the Celebrated Suburb of Park Forest, Illinois.” Here Buggeln narrates the history of a place through the stories of several congregations (Protestant, Catholic, ecumenical, and Jewish) as they sought not only to fit into a model planned community but also to carve out their own sites of denominational identity.
These six chapters are preceded by an introduction and a context-setting chapter titled “The Modern Church Movement” and followed by a concluding chapter, “The Afterlife of the Postwar Suburban Church.” The core chapters in the middle stand well on their own, however, and lend themselves to easy use in a variety of teaching settings. The book is nicely illustrated, written with care, and jargon-free throughout. The aggregate picture that emerges is clear and informative, and the book constitutes a major contribution to our knowledge of modern religious architecture. It deserves to be widely read and emulated for its incorporation of multiple congregational histories into a coherent architectural history.
The shifting perspectives and frames of the core chapters, however, open the discussion to questioning, as readers may wonder about the potential of alternative perspectives or aspects just outside the frame. For instance, I came away wanting more about the relation between the story told here and the broader liturgical movement, or the varying conceptions of twentieth-century modernism, or the religious diversity that is too readily elided into a Judeo-Christian monolith, or the sociopolitical critique of suburban culture mentioned at the outset of this review. This is not to suggest Buggeln should have written a different book. Nevertheless, aspects of her book's structure do threaten to lessen the real value of her scholarship. The topics just mentioned are all identified and briefly discussed in the two introductory chapters, leading the reader to expect that they will be taken up again more fully later; aside from minor echoes here and there, however, they are not revisited. It seems that Buggeln raises such topics at the outset not only to establish a context but also to set aside what could otherwise derail her main goal: to illuminate the American postwar suburban church through deep dives into the most representative of its architects, buildings, and congregations. And the concluding chapter, by considering the later difficulties of expansion, adaptation to changing uses, and preservation, risks treating the story just presented as definitive and wholly settled. A more explicit reflection on methodology at the beginning and a more open-ended conclusion that comes back to latent topics worthy of further consideration would have solidified the far-reaching relevance of this book.1
These are minor quibbles, however, for the real value and promise of the book are undiminished for a careful reader. This is evident as soon as one considers the sociopolitical critiques of suburban religious (and other) cultures of the 1950s and 1960s, for the grassroots detail and richness of the book provide material for more fully understanding the buildings at the center. For example, Buggeln demonstrates how these churches were perceived and experienced as radical by the congregations involved, a relevant point for any sociopolitical critique to address (172). While this observation is a relatively minor point within her study, Buggeln gives us many such launching points for further investigation, along with a trove of well-documented material with which to pursue that research. This is a remarkable story of meaningful human interaction with the built environment in a milieu we are perhaps too prone to dismiss as superficial.