Posted in education on August 29, 2017 10:23 am EDT

Frank Lloyd Wright, Transformer of Sacred Space

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed thousands of buildings throughout his career, yet only 10 were houses of worship -- stunning embodiments of sacred space architectural design and function.

The First Unitarian Society of Madison, in Madison, Wis., designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, features a glass-walled worship space, connecting worshippers with their natural surroundings. Image courtesy of TKWA.











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TAGS: architectural design, gathering space, materiality, worship,


By Erica Cottrill

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed thousands of buildings throughout his career, yet only 10 were houses of worship. As the son of a minister and nephew of Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a promoter of Unitarianism, it is not surprising that some of Wright’s greatest works include sacred spaces. Wright’s church design spanned throughout his career, known for its organic and unconventional materials and spatial planning, virtually changing the way people worshipped. “Wright was one of the first to radically change the design of the church,” says Vince Micha, architect at The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc. (TKWA) in Milwaukee.

Wright not only designed homes, hotels and commercial buildings, he had an enduring impact on church design. A prolific designer, Wright was a pioneer in “organic architecture,” in which new and old creates a coherent whole that is in harmony with its surroundings. In terms of church design, the communal space was a recurring theme in his work.

Departure from the Ordinary: The First Unitarian Society of Madison, WI

Celebrated as one of the most innovative examples of organic church architecture, The First Unitarian Society of Madison has become one of the largest Unitarian congregations in the United States.

A green rooftop graces the First Unitarian Society of Madison. Image courtesy of TKWA.

“Wright--who was a member of the church--didn’t fall back on traditional church design,” Micha reports, who with his team designed the church’s 20,000-square-foot addition. “The church was influenced by Wright’s previous designs, with the use of curves and straight lines and geometric shapes--triangles, circles, ovals, squares and spirals. The Unity Temple is a boxed structure featuring rectangles and cubes.”

One of Wright’s recurring design approaches throughout his work and reflected in this church is a sense of unity created by an intimate feel, as if you were in your living room. Wright added a fireplace, and he positioned the seating so that parishioners can make eye contact by creating seating on the side that could look onto the center seating. With no views adjacent to the new addition, the architect carved out three courtyards emitting daylight, reinforcing a strong connection to the landscape.

Adding to that intimacy of the new Meeting Room, called the Atrium Auditorium, was the wood and steel Queen Bow-Truss roof system that preserved the intimate quality of an otherwise expansive space. Wright abandoned the steeple roof, making the church the first of its kind, according to Dr. Michael A. Schuler, senior minister of the church.

Panoramic exterior, courtesy of TKWA.

“In terms of the architecture, he used simple organic patterns,” Dr. Schuler states. “The church has a neutral design which makes it inviting for people of all denominations. The design was groundbreaking because Wright used common materials in an uncommon way. The auditorium is made of pure glass, and the building is constructed of natural materials such as wood and stone, enabling the congregation to commune with nature."

Early Modern Work: The Unity Temple

Wright’s design of the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., built between 1905-1908, was revolutionary because of his ideas about space and how it contributes to creating a sense of peace and spirituality. In the early 1900s, the Unitarian Church of Oak Park burned down, and Wright was commissioned to design a new building. One of his earliest works, the structure is considered important albeit unconventional because its sanctuary is built in the shape of a square with four equal wings of balconies. The structure was truly modern because of its use of reinforced concrete, an inexpensive material that was a defining feature of his work.

Wright’s design for the Unity Temple was the fusion of space, experience and the material world. One of his objectives is to maximize the efficient use of space by creating two actual areas--a community space and a temple space designed with various seating levels to accommodate the size of the congregation. Wright called it a “modern meeting house” with windows enabling congregants to see and hear each other, while focusing on the pulpit and the choir.

Unity Temple, Oak Park, Ill.; image courtesy of

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