A Placemaking Journal
Heaven Help Us: Ambitious Project Both Reaffirms, Tests Faith in Sustainable Future
For anyone of shared experience, that typically meant attending a church that was designed and built to serve the rapidly growing, happy motoring suburban leisure class. Equal parts woody earth tones and ample parking, it was a transient testament to our nation’s awkward adolescence: a monolithic UFO of contemporary styling.
But it was also testament to the church’s theological tension at the time, which manifested itself in doctrinal inclinations towards avoiding that which had been done before. To this day, according to architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, this unresolved traditional/modern conflict “requires a sorting out of intellectual goals and the emotional or visceral effect that a space can have on a people’s spiritual stance.”
I was just a kid at the time but, even then, the less-than-subtle disconnect between these newfangled buildings and the deep rituals taking place inside of them did not go unnoticed.
Theological considerations aside, that’s just poor branding.
But now that the sheen of the suburban promise has faded and our recent history’s tendency towards folly is increasingly revealed, the timing is perfect for some signs of hope.
One such sign arrived today, with this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. But it’s a mixed blessing.
Mary Our Queen Catholic Church, a growing, 15 year old suburban congregation in Norcross, Georgia, is looking for a permanent home. But rather than build something new, they’re looking to purchase a spectacular, historic Buffalo, New York, basilica and move it nearly a thousand miles south, piece by piece, to be reassembled.
The church calls it “preservation through relocation” and claims new construction of equal quality would cost more than twice as much. The whole project seems like a solid exercise in pragmatic preservation, nicely aligned with what Original Green architect Steve Mouzon describes as the key attributes of truly sustainable buildings: lovability, durability, flexibility and frugality.
Such permanence, history and reinforced cultural identity are touchstones of common sense sustainability. But don’t rejoice just yet. There’s at least one devil in the details.
Take a look at the church in its present location:
Now consider this rendering of its future home:
Conspicuous in the new plans is the apparent absence of a surrounding neighborhood. Thus, a structure that once stood as the spiritual heart of a physical community will now be repackaged as the idealized temple on a hill.
Not that I have anything against grandeur or symbolism. Each has their place. But the church suggests this rebirth will add centuries to the building’s life. Assuming that’s true, what are the ramifications when the building is embedded in a physical context that many believe has increasingly diminished prospects?
Or, as Mouzon puts it, “Only after a place has been made sustainable does it make sense to discuss sustainable buildings.”
That’s not outside the parish’s reach. It simply depends on their vision. If their goal is to remain a relevant spiritual hub over decades (if not centuries), they may want to broaden their approach to reflect the fact that their days as an auto-dependent destination may be numbered.
Could the church transcend its sprawl-intensive landscape to once again, as circumstances change, serve as the heart of a vibrant physical community? Maybe yes. Gwinnett County, where the church is located, has been the site of some intriguing suburban mall retrofit proposals and, on an even more related note, Grenfell Architecture has spelled out a great proposal for transitioning a sprawling, suburban lot to a denser, transit-friendly urban neighborhood, developed over time by a church that would sit at its center.
It all goes to show just how fractured the whole conversation is. In no way discounting the church’s efforts, they’re just one more example of how far we’ve yet to go. If only there were some resource that put all the issues – transportation, land use, environmental and historic preservation, energy depletion, community sustainability, cultural identity, agriculture, and more – on the same page so individual efforts could better plug into a more cohesive big picture.
We could call it the Good Book.