When I get something in my head, I’m like a chicken with a speck of blood.I start to fixate. I have even been known to obsess. Sometimes, though, life interrupts my efforts to realise whatever it is I’ve gotten wrapped up in and something else takes over. But not always.
Having discovered that the House on the Rock wasn’t one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s creations, I was determined to visit a building that was. Taliesin, his home place, was closed for the season so I had to look farther afield. Apparently some proud owners of Wright’s houses are happy for people to rock up to their front door and ask for a viewing but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. If I owned one, I can’t think of anything more annoying. But GP, the queen of Wisconsin, came to the rescue.
In the city of Milwaukee there’s a church – the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. It was one of Wright’s last major commissions. He actually died before it was officially opened, which is a shame. A shame that he missed seeing the effect it has on people.
I was also eager to see it because I had heard that it was what Ayn Rand based the Stoddard Temple on in her book, The Fountainhead. But that bubble has burst. Stoddard, apparently, was based on a Wright-designed church, but on a 1906 Unitarian church he designed in Oak Park, Illinois – Unity Temple. [Fascinating article here on the Rand/Wright relationship.] But I didn’t know this when I was there. The one I was sitting in was built to human scale, with no traditional religious imagery (or minimal imagery, if you discount the floor plan being in the shape of a Greek cross). It matched.
It is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve been in. And so comfortable. Not a word I’d usually associate with a church. But why not? What is it about church architecture that says no to comfort? Perhaps people might spend more time in them if they were more welcoming.
The pre-service (if that’s what it was … ) started at 8.30 am so we had an early start to be sure to be there on time. When we arrived, the car park was nearly empty – not a good sign. And there were just four others in the church, not including the priest (cantor?), who was already in full voice. Did I mention it was Greek Orthodox?
I was clueless. We sat. We listened. I got lost. People started arriving around 9.20 and the mass itself started at 9.30. And people kept arriving. Conversation happened all the while. Old and young alike stopped to say hi to friends and neighbours. It was all very convivial and so not Roman Catholic. The choir in the upper balcony was in fine fettle. The congregation resembled the cast of My Big Greek Wedding and was remarkably white. It made for some great people watching. Two hours into it all, things were still going strong. But the pews were comfortable. I said that, right? As neither of us had been baptised into the Orthodox faith, we couldn’t take communion. This was clearly stated on the leaflet. But we could partake in the bread afterwards (even if I’m still not sure what that was about). It wasn’t easy to figure out the ritual or to understand all that was being said and sung. But it did feel holy. In a surreal sort of way.
I was particularly taken with how relaxed everyone was. And how right the church felt. How usable. How for the people. I’ve been in modern churches and not liked them much. I think they often fail to capture the spirit of it all. I’ve been to fabulous old ones, too, that while stunningly gorgeous, are just a tad too ornate to be real. But this was different. It was simple, usable, and cosy without being small. It didn’t take much imagination on my part to see the Man himself stopping by and sitting down for a chat.
Back in 1958, in a letter in which he refers to the church, Wright had this to say:
The edifice is in itself a complete work of modern art and science belonging to today but dedicated to ancient tradition—contributing to Tradition instead of living upon it.
This week, thousands of miles removed from Milwaukee, I’m grateful that I had the chance to experience Wright’s work. The last time I spent so long in a church was in Prague, one Easter, when I had to turn to someone standing beside me and check to make sure I was at mass, in a Roman Catholic Church. It went on forever with 13 readings … in Czech. That I resented. This was different. This was special.