01/24/18| a Future for Saarinen’s North Christian Church

North Christian Church sanctuary with the Walter Holtkamp organ in the background

Some thoughts about North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, its meaning, and its sustainability as a place that celebrates that meaning.

This place has meaning to SKA on several levels. John Kinsella witnessed its development as a young apprentice architect in Eero Saarinen's Michigan studio. When Eero passed away at the peak of an amazing career, John was tasked with preparing the construction drawings for the church, one of Eero's last and major works that John and his dedicated colleagues carried on to completion.

Over forty years later, SKA led a team that placed North Christian Church on the National Register of Historic Places as an element of a Multiple Property National Landmark listing. So this place has a lot of meaning and memories for us.

For various reasons, some reminiscent of the drama that provoked the establishment of the congregation as an offshoot of Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church, the North Christian Church membership has dwindled to about nineteen families. The fifty-year old landmark building and landscape are not easily sustained by that level of membership. Re-purposing, an often-used strategy to preserve historic places (and this mid-century masterpiece is now historic) in a way that honors the remarkable provenance and purpose of this place has been difficult to articulate.

But think about Music, Architecture and Patronage

"Music is liquid architecture. Architecture is frozen music" [Goethe said that].

Goethe provokes the idea that one of many commonalities between significant architecture and music is that they both convey emotion as immediate rewarding sensory experience.  That idea's relevance to the Saarinen/Miller-Sweeney-Tangeman collaborative masterpiece, North Christian Church, is obvious to anyone that has experienced the music/performance/spatial/congregate dynamic of that building, that setting, that Place.

What is the larger universal idea between that simple observation? And why is it important now (now in the immediate and imperative sense of a real threat to that very place and its larger meaning)?

Historically music and ecclesiastical architecture evolved interdependently.  An Information Theory scholar1 observed that the history of western civilization can be told through the acoustics and form of its worship spaces, and that the history of its music, essentially liturgical but rooted in its relationship or opposition to its secular counterparts of any given time, can be traced to that synergy. From the early liturgy of the spoken word to the inflected monotone of the cantor to Gregorian chant to polyphony, architecture has both shaped and responded to music and liturgical performance in their multiple forms.

Now think about Indiana University and its relationship to Columbus

The established IU Jacobs School of Music is a renowned academy of music education ranging from performance to research. It is a highly regarded custodian of accessible music history from archaic to contemporary forms. Its national prominence was enhanced by the same patronage that established North Christian Church (The Tangeman component). Institutes of sacred music have been established by that patronage at both Yale University and at nearby University of Cincinnati. It can be reasonably asserted that Early Music and its liturgical basis has enjoyed its relatively recent renaissance at least in part because of that Columbus-based patronage.

Indiana University's Presence in Columbus 

  • The fledgling IU School of Art, Architecture+Design, based in Columbus, is a uniquely appropriate idea.
  • An equally appropriate counterpart to that idea would be a Columbus location for an IU Jacobs School of Music Institute for the Study and Performance of Sacred Music and Sacred Places at North Christian Church, with quarterly, monthly or Architectural Tour concerts and performances. Create immersive simulations of the Roman basilicas, abbeys and cathedrals where the music was performed, with the tent-like ceiling planes as projection surfaces. Monetize that, as the IMA does with the Miller House, to help sustain the facility.

What a place to honor, frame, and tell a civilization-defining story through study and performance.

The Miller-Sweeney-Tangeman family and Eero Saarinen created a very special place, a civic space. It is more than architecture as buildings. It is architecture, setting and community as a cultural phenomenon that needs to be sustained in that totality. That is more than re-purposing a building to save its physical form. It is sustaining a building and its purpose, writ large, as Saarinen and his patrons intended.

And what a responsibility to consider, not only by the dwindling congregation, but also by its larger community and the legions of individual and institutional beneficiaries of the Miller-Sweeney-Tangeman legacy.

1. The History of Western Civilization Told Through the Acoustics of its Worship Spaces;  https://www.icacommission.org/Proceedings/ICA2001Rome/5_02.pdf