Monday, February 2, 2009

Architecture of Religion: Unitarian Church

Sitting at the corner of Oak Street and 49th Avenue, the Unitarian Church dates from the early 1960's, Vancouver's Modernist heyday. Designed by Wolfgang Gerson– a UBC School of Architecture instructor and himself a Unitarian– the church is part of a group of religious structures around the city that display a progressive attitude to the relationship between design and worship.

Other churches from the era include St. Anselm's Anglican (Semmens Simpson, 1953), St. David's United Chuch (Thompson, Berwick & Pratt, 1958), Baptist Church (Arthur Mudry, 1967) and an addition to the Shaughnessy Heights United by McCarter & Nairne (1954).

According to Phillip Hewitt, church minister at the time, cited in Rhodri Windsor Liscombe's Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1938-1963, the church was designed after a limited competition that emphasized "inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness...and a forward-looking spirit rather than one tied to the ideas and practices of the past"(109). It was meant to function as religious space as well as a community focal point, placing emphasis on musical performances and general dialogue.

The European-born Gerson moved to Canada in 1940 and had previously designed St. Cuthbert's Anglican in Montreal before moving on to Winnipeg and, in 1956, eventually the West Coast. For the Vancouver design, he stressed that "man must be seen as an integral part of nature rather than a special creating dominating native" (Gerson, in Liscombe, 109). The details of the main building bear out this philosophy. The space is imbued with light from full height vertical windows that alternate with seating alcoves down each side. Mature landscaping gives privacy at street level while also strengthening the connection between nature and the indoors.

Materially, things were kept on the organic side and the colour scheme is suitably rich, enlivened with warm earthen and orange tones and extensive use of grey brick on the exterior. Great care has also been taken with the inclusion of large tapestries which are modern in spirit and yet timeless in the vein of the textile arts.

Much like the tapestries, the main congregation room is unabashedly modern yet tempered with an organic sensibility that accrues through the details - a great open and yet embracing space that feels both timeless and appropriate for its use.

It must be emphasized that the place has been well cared for and that the Unitarian Church clearly values and is a custodian of Gerson's vision for the building. No small feat in an era that quickly dispenses with the 'old' in favour of more current and fashionable designs.

Curiously, the church appears as a backdrop to Rodney Graham's 2006 work Three Musicians (Members of the Early Music Group "Renaissance Fare" performing Matteo of Perugia's 'le Greygnour Bien' at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, Late September 1977) in which the artist appears as a revivalist musician. The piece touches on the links between different eras of musicality and artistic interpretation in which the church itself and its mission of performance and inclusiveness is a key part of that dialogue.

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