Religious structures have always been important to the development of a community, often standing at the center of a town and dominating the skyline. The Parthenon, Karnak, Baalbek or Chartres Cathedral come to mind, as does The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The stone circles of pre-history, found at Stonehenge and on the magical island of Malta, and the mysterious pyramids of South American cultures have not been fully explained but exert a powerful mystic spell despite (or, perhaps, because of) our ignorance of their actual function.
The earliest settlers of this country often built a church soon after founding a village or town. The graceful churches that mark the village greens in New England testify to an apparent need to create a structure that clearly establishes both spiritual security and an essential sense of place.
In recent years, construction of religious buildings seems to have become less an imperative to create a monument and more a practical way to satisfy the need of a particular congregation. Many contemporary churches tend toward the tried and true, even the banal, as they try to provide neutral space for a variety of purposes, only one of which is worship. The outcome is often a religious version of the dreaded "cafetorium" found in some schools.
Some notable exceptions to this trend do exist. The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine continues to rise magnificently over Morningside Heights in New York City. Renzo Piano has designed an extraordinary cathedral in Genoa, Italy. In the 20th century, Corbusier created one of the most stunning spiritual structures anywhere in his chapel at Ronchamp, France.
The Sarasota area has been rather well served in this aspect of development. We are, well, blessed with an assortment of quite important and relatively new religious structures. One of the newest is the Episcopal Church of the Nativity on North Lockwood Ridge Road, designed by Naples-based Victor Latavish. The church is sited surprisingly close to the busy roadway, a choice explained by the architect as responding to 59th Street's eventual extension through the intersection, providing the church a prominent corner position. As a result, worshippers and visitors enter through a quiet grassy space away from the road, using a natural sanctuary from traffic as the access to the spiritual sanctuary within. A graceful curved portico links an older building to the new, leading the eye toward the new building, which is significant, and away from the old structure, which isn't.
The gentle rise of the roofline and the sharp angle as it terminates over the altar suggest the curves of an inverted boat hull-an ark-and lead the eye directly to the large hexagonal window embodying a cross which dominates the church. Inside, the curve of the roof is directly expressed in the ceiling, providing both a sheltering and an uplifting atmosphere conducive to meditation and worship. The liberal use of wood in both furniture and surfaces is calming, as is the richness of the green marble on the altar at the focal point of the cruciform seating arrangement. This room, as a religious space should, provides the visual serenity in which mental serenity can be found.
Serenity is also found in another relatively new religious structure: the Reed Chapel and Music Center at the First Congregational United Church of Christ on South Euclid Avenue. Here, architect Ernest Dreher and his team provided a flexible space of great tranquility, employing highly traditional materials, including exposed wood trusses, to allow the massive, prow-shaped west wall of stained glass its full impact on the room.
Designed by the Kate White Studio, this wall of radiant color provides a mellow view of the outside landscape until the late afternoon, when the low rays of the setting sun set the glass afire, dappling the large room with brilliant blues and greens, soft reds and yellows. The simple rectangular space then comes alive with the same spirit-light that pours through the Rose Window at Chartres, with similar effect on the mind of the beholder.
Although it is not new, the Saint Thomas More Catholic Church on Gulf Gate Drive deserves mention as one of the finest religious structures built anywhere in recent times. Carl Abbott is a master of the Sarasota School of Architecture style, and he has expressed it with supreme skill in this wonderful building. The church's large volumes flow with simple dignity, complementing the natural richness of the heavily treed site. In keeping with Sarasota School principles, the outside is present through large windows, bringing nature's softly illuminated tranquility to the irregularly shaped, high-ceilinged sanctuary. Color is virtually absent here, creating a focus on the vestments of the clergy at the central altar.
There are many more recently built churches in the area, some of which are very successful, some of which are sadly unambitious. Among those to be admired is Epiphany Cathedral in Venice, a large modern structure that truly dominates its downtown Tampa Avenue site. The interior soars dramatically, evoking awe more than intimacy, appropriate to its status as a cathedral. Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, also on North Lockwood Ridge Road, has a similar effect, its grand dome, dazzling mosaics and graceful loggia evoking the spirit of the old world from which they come.