Greater Greater Washington


Transforming a suburban church into a neighborhood

Could developing large parking lots help suburban churches fund improvements? Grenfell Architecture designed this plan to help a parish create a more beautiful church using solid New Urbanist principles and traditional Virginia architecture.

The church occupies typically sprawling suburban lot, surrounded by seas of asphalt and low-rise buildings. However, while I was working at Grenfell Architecture, we tried to look at the project in a radical way. We came up with a plan to fix the disorganized sprawl of parking lots and low-rise buildings to create a new neighborhood and to truly make this church the center of a community.

The primary focus was to design a new church that better reflected the liturgical reforms of the past few years within the Catholic church. Since many parishes have only limited resources, we explored how a phased development could help turn this parish from asphalt-dominated auto-centric sprawl into to a walkable mixed-use neighborhood.

Both parishioners and priests alike have given this plan almost universally positive reviews. The pastor of this church has seen the plans and is amenable to the idea, but it does not represent any actual plans to construct this project.

1. This is the current site condition. The area is disorganized and chaotic, dominated by parking. There is little in terms of good outdoor space, and the buildings do not create any ensemble in any way.

2. The first step is to create a system of streets. This begins to organize the area into a block structure. The streets are designed for on-street parking, amazingly providing an equal number of parking spots diffused about the site.

Note too that the connections allow for this neighborhood to become a center for adjoining neighborhoods.

3. Now that there's enough parking, the large parking lot facing the street can become a row of commercial shops with apartments above. The corner would be anchored by a neighborhood-size grocery store, and other small shops such as florists, coffee shops, or service businesses could occupy the rest. The apartments above see their first residents in anywhere from 10 to 20 apartments. These apartments would be ideal for elderly or younger couples who might not be able to afford larger homes.

4. The first set of 20 townhouses are built upon empty parking lots. Alleys behind the townhouses provide access to one- or two-car garages. These are geared towards families with children who might attend the local school.

5. After selling or leasing properties, the parish would now be able to afford to build a new three-story school. The school would contain the same area for classes, but having a taller profile provides a more compact footprint.

Up to this point, the only demolition that has occurred was to remove parking lots. Already the campus has been improved tremendously.

6. Now having built a new school, the old school could come down, allowing for the construction of 28 new townhouses and another small section of commercial storefronts and apartments. The townhouses each feature the same rear-facing garages and small yards behind.

7. Now the school could complete the reconstruction with a rear wing containing a gymnasium. This would create a pleasant interior courtyard. The courtyard also allows for light to reach all classrooms of the school.

8. Having completed all of the residential components, the parish could now use the funding from the residential sales and commercial rents to help build a new church. The new church here might incorporate a small historic chapel as part of the complex of the church, sacristy and rectory for the parish. The existing rectory would be removed, but the pastor could reside in an apartment or one of the townhomes while the new rectory is being built.

9. Now that the parish has a new church and chapel, the old church is demolished to complete the plan. A new set of storefront buildings would create an orderly town square. Stores, coffee shops, and both school and church functions on the green would activate the square.

Between this commercial block a parking lot would be created to serve the commercial as well as the apartments built above. Using the topography, a parking structure could also be built behind, doubling the parking.

However, since this neighborhood center would be home to almost 75 families, the community would hopefully not need so much parking. The families would be close to school, church and shopping, as well as possibly work. A local bus line could running to Metro along the main road. would encourage less auto use by residents.

Having the church as the center of the community makes it not just a place where people go on Sundays, but a visible and active part of their lives, giving residents something shared that brings them together as a real community. This principle is easily applied to followers of any faith, allowing for their own faith to be shared by their neighbors, and to provide visible witness to neighbors as well.

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Erik Bootsma is a board member of the National Civic Art Society and of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art. 


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This is all very good work, Erik. Nice to see the phasing considered in speculative architecture. Are you taking a little bit of the church architecture after Stroik?

But, um, gimme a site!

by цarьchitect on Oct 29, 2009 3:32 pm • linkreport

I love the phasing.

Did you also run some back-of-the-envelope numbers to see if the rough financials work for using the phased structure to finance the new construction?

by Alex B. on Oct 29, 2009 3:34 pm • linkreport

this is an awesome idea- all it needs is a rail transit connection...

all throughout history towns and cities grew up around Churches, Mosques, Temples-

or started as fortifications w/ altars or chapels- and were transformed into towns.

This looks very organic and if room is made for more add ons / more growth later ,
then it is definitely a vast improvement over the tired ugly suburban sprawl / Broadacre City model.

by w on Oct 29, 2009 3:35 pm • linkreport

however I must admit that I like the idea of that octagonal building- I think it is a better design than the flat roofed housing built up in it's place.

Maybe you could add a few floors atop of it and retain the foundations/plan?

by w on Oct 29, 2009 3:39 pm • linkreport

by w on Oct 29, 2009 3:42 pm • linkreport

With some Google searching: 6420 Linway Ter, Mc Lean, VA if anyone is interested in looking around.

Seems like a great plan, but I see two issues with it:
1) The area is dominated by single family homes and cul-de-sacs, and a long way from any significant transit. In that respect, the plan seems a little out of place for the location.
2) The cul-de-sac that you attach roads to in your first step is lined with what looks like multi-mullion dollar homes. I can't imagine those residents would be willing to open up their quiet neighborhood just to be walking distance from a Starbucks or grocery store.

by Brian S on Oct 29, 2009 3:42 pm • linkreport

I love the phasing and how it really puts forth a good, workable plan that makes it so that the whole parish (both the church and school) can continue its operations throughout the process.

by Tim on Oct 29, 2009 3:44 pm • linkreport

Just curious as to what the area of that lot is roughly. 75 families / how many acres?

by kidincredible on Oct 29, 2009 3:49 pm • linkreport

maybe even a beautiful wall around the entire project?

Akin to Maulbronn Kloster in Germany?

how about fountains and significant architectural sculptures? Real antique architecture always had art of some kind to complement or to go along with it- even in Colonial Virginia.

by w on Oct 29, 2009 3:52 pm • linkreport

@Brian S: That depends on how you define "significant" transit. The 23A and 23C buses pass by there every 10-30 minutes during rush hours, going from Langley or Tysons to Crystal City, with Ballston, Shirlington and a few other places in between. I take that route to Tysons.

by Tim on Oct 29, 2009 3:54 pm • linkreport

There's a little monument in the square, w.

Also, only the school is particularly "antique". The townhouses look just like most contemporary townhouses in Northern Virginia. They're totally vernacular, except they're more urban.

by BeyondDC on Oct 29, 2009 4:01 pm • linkreport

well, I for one like the shape of the octagon and it's variety.

I am a professional artist- not a planner so forgive me if I put aesthetics over function.

Too much of "modernism" is about "function" but not about real long term, livability concerns. This is where aesthetics comes in.

The more beauty, the more real art, the less cartoon art & architecture, the better.

by w on Oct 29, 2009 4:06 pm • linkreport

Thanks Tim, I wasn't aware. Just made a quick judgment based on the surrounding neighborhood and roads. I would probably qualify "significant" transit as an ability to go day to day without needing a car. A bus that runs twice an hour off-peak doesn't really cut it. Though if you had a development there it certainly would provide some justification for increasing service.

by Brian S on Oct 29, 2009 4:10 pm • linkreport

> I for one like the shape of the octagon and it's variety. I am a professional artist- not a planner so forgive me if I put aesthetics over function. Too much of "modernism" is about "function" but not about real long term, livability concerns. This is where aesthetics comes in.

You have to recognize that "plan view" and real life look totally different. Here's what that Octagon looks like in real life (wait for Street View to load). It looks like a bunker. Hardly attractive.

Personally, I would consider keeping an otherwise horribly ugly building just because it's a sort of funky shape to be the "cartoon-like" decision.

by BeyondDC on Oct 29, 2009 4:13 pm • linkreport

Brian: This location is very close to Arlington's Westover neighborhood, which is exactly the sort of small neighborhood downtown visioned here, and which pretty much everyone loves.

I'm not suggesting there wouldn't be NIMBY issues, but they may not be as bad as you think.

by BeyondDC on Oct 29, 2009 4:15 pm • linkreport

Beyond DC- it is not the street view that I was talking about- why are you being so belligerent here?

I was saying that I liked the "plan" of the octagon and it's historical ancestors- and merely stated that it could be the base for a taller structure that is akin to the Florence Baptistry.

Even Jefferson admired Roman architecture.

This is not the cartoon stuff I was alluding to.

You miss my point.

by w on Oct 29, 2009 4:23 pm • linkreport

I'm not being belligerent. We're having a conversation.

I do seem to have missed your point, though. I wouldn't have any problem with incorporating an octagonal building into the plan, provided it fit urbanistically.

I *would* have a problem with saving that existing octagon out of a sense of art, but that does not seem to have been your point.

by BeyondDC on Oct 29, 2009 4:36 pm • linkreport

all in all-
this is a great concept and the designer should be proud of it.

by w on Oct 29, 2009 4:37 pm • linkreport

what is so bad about rebuilding a new octagon atop the old foundation- just as was done in Florence?

and make it more appealing?

I agree with you- it is not a finished building as it is now- temporary rooftop [ asphalt shingle] and bad materials- but many great monumental and lovely buildings came out of the ruins or basic plans of rudimentary and primitive structures.

The original Pantheon in Roma was wooden- and caught fire- it was re-built on the same plan and made permenant and five times more beautiful.

by w on Oct 29, 2009 4:41 pm • linkreport

What are the odds that a plan like this would actually be approved and put into action?

What are the implications of a plan like this for the church's non-profit status with regards to the income received for leasing/development etc? If the church basically pays no taxes for any received income, then the public infrastructure has to be impacted without a tax increase offset correct?

by ckstevenson on Oct 29, 2009 4:42 pm • linkreport

very cool. its nice to see a parish thinking this way, even if it doesn't happen or is a long time coming.

my only question is that when initial commercial strip goes up, where will patrons park? i am for eliminating parking to the possible extent, but are people going to park a couple blocks away to pick up groceries or drive a mile or two extra to park near the door? just saying that initially there wont be enough people right there to keep all those store fronts in business. at least not from what is pictured. it looks pretty low density at the moment.

by dano on Oct 29, 2009 4:45 pm • linkreport

@ckstevenson raises a good point about the church's non-profit status. If churches start becoming major developers that also incidentally have a building where people come to pray, then they'll start acting like supposedly "non-for-profit" hospitals do: i.e., for-profit in everything but name.

I'm aware that there are many churches that are big into development, but usually there's some sort of tie-in, such as instead of building market-rate apts. they build subsidized housing or (especially) subsidized old-folks housing.

by Simon on Oct 29, 2009 5:00 pm • linkreport

@ckstevenson raises a good point about the church's non-profit status. If churches start becoming major developers that also incidentally have a building where people come to pray, then they'll start acting like supposedly "non-for-profit" hospitals do: i.e., for-profit in everything but name.

I'm aware that there are many churches that are big into development, but usually there's some sort of tie-in, such as instead of building market-rate apts. they build subsidized housing or (especially) subsidized old-folks housing.

by Simon on Oct 29, 2009 5:01 pm • linkreport

>what is so bad about rebuilding a new octagon atop the old foundation

Nothing, so long as you get rid of the unnecessary parking and setbacks and replan the street grid so it's right next to the building. Make it fully urban, like the one in Florence, and I don't care what shape it is or where you put it.

by BeyondDC on Oct 29, 2009 5:02 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the compliments and criticism. I think it's all welcome and good.

As far as the octagonal church goes, its a liturgical thing, but its wholly inappropriate to the traditional form of the Mass, which is a concern here as they have it celebrated often. So the desire for a more "church like" church. And yeah the old one is very ugly, having been there a number of times.

The transit is an issue yes, but I think that this is as Brian says, could be reason to improve service. McLean where the church is, is in the process of trying to more urbanize its center. This could be part of that.

The area is about 12 acres for this section if I remember right. There is a soccer field and a small woods to the north that is part of the property that I left undeveloped at the moment. The soccer field would work for existing students, and could even be opened up to the community at large. The woods could also be used for development in the future.

uarchitect: what do you mean by site? website? or just give me a site to build on :) As far as my own website, I'm still building it, though this week has been dominated by other work on another church and a competition application.

by Boots on Oct 29, 2009 5:05 pm • linkreport

I can think of some more examples to do this with. I even looked at what it would be like if they converted some streets in my hometown into streets and infilled.

by Canaan Merchant on Oct 29, 2009 5:08 pm • linkreport

I suspect he wanted to know where it was located, Boots.

by BeyondDC on Oct 29, 2009 5:08 pm • linkreport

"The original Pantheon in Roma was wooden- and caught fire- it was re-built on the same plan and made permenant and five times more beautiful." - There's zero evidence for what the original looked like, whether it's round or not. That's a matter of speculation. Oh and yah, it rains inside. Octagonal is fine for a baptistry, but not for a Roman church. An Orthodox might be ok, but the church in the round just doesn't work for the Roman Rite. If this were a Baptist parish, you may have a point to a beautiful octagonal church.

As far as parking for the commercial strip, perhaps it would be better to put the lot there behind it first rather than last. I think a lot could be accomodated on street. Though an anchor Trader Joes would want a bit more for a wider appeal. Hopefully eventually it wouldn't be needed.

by Boots on Oct 29, 2009 5:17 pm • linkreport

According to Google, this is about 4 miles from West Falls Church station or about 3 from Tysons East, the first station on the planned Silver Line. The street grid in the area is, well, non-existent, so I have to imagine most trips would still be by car. But with the right connections, you could shift some trips to bus or bike/ped (e.g. connecting to Metro).

So it's still pretty suburban, but the new plan looks denser (but not entirely inappropriately so, for the neighborhood) and much nicer, overall. I'll take another 75 residential units of mixed-use, non-greenfield, inside the Beltway redevelopment, for sure.

by Gavin Baker on Oct 29, 2009 5:18 pm • linkreport

@ckstevenson @Simon-- Generally, a nonprofit is only exempt from property tax on properties that it uses to serve its mission, not on investment property. So, the church would continue to be exempt from property tax on the church and school properties themselves, but not on the apartments or commercial properties. Private universities, in particularly, own a great deal of investment real estate and pay tax on it as normal.

by Josh B on Oct 29, 2009 5:23 pm • linkreport

A project somewhat similar to this has been approved for downtown Bethesda. One difference is that the existing church building will be preserved and renovated.

In answer to several commenters - I believe that in Bethesda the for-profit part of the project will pay taxes.

by Ben Ross on Oct 29, 2009 5:24 pm • linkreport

More urban than suburban, but a smaller church site in Clarendon is adding 8 stories of below-market apartments.

by Gavin Baker on Oct 29, 2009 5:34 pm • linkreport

Kudos to this plan. Infill is the way to go. No more sprawl.

by NikolasM on Oct 29, 2009 5:35 pm • linkreport

however this pans out- Boots has done an excellent job and is certainly a creative individual working under constraints of an existing site and is making the best of it -

basically this is roses coming up out of dog$hit, if I may say.

If this is what our young , new architects are thinking- there is yet hope for the mess our country finds itself in.

by w on Oct 29, 2009 5:36 pm • linkreport

This idea is not limited to that site. Looking at the aerial view, I thought this was St. Agnes Catholic Church and School in Arlington. The ART 62 runs on the Stafford Street side of the property 1 mile to the Ballston Metro, and the site is two blocks from Lee Highway, where the 3A, 3B, 3E, and 3Y Metrobus routes run.

by Stanton Park on Oct 29, 2009 5:47 pm • linkreport

This is a great plan ... especially the phasing aspect!

I guess the question that comes up is 'How do you get the zoning changes through required to make it possible?"

As one poster earlier pointed out, the neighbors who bought their homes in the adjoining streets with a promise from the state (i.e., zoning laws) that they would have low density neighbors, would be unlikely to agree to this change in zoning ... And without their agreement this change would be politically impossible ... even if we discount the 'equitable' aspect of it. A part of the plan would have to be, 'How do we get buy in from the adjoining neighbors?' They now have (and paid for) a low density area. How do we make them want to trade that in for "fill in the blank".

Also, I do have some problems with the idea of a village built around a church ... or any house of worship. Yes, there's precedent for that ... but that precendent comes from the days when everyone in a village/city/country was supposed to be of the same religion and that religion functioned as much as a governmental authority than the government authorities themselves (and sometimes more ... much more.) In a day and age where we are from diverse backgrounds (including many 'non'-religious), and the governing authority is secular, that center piece needs to be secular too. Of course though ... then the whole idea of convincing the church to turn itself into a town falls apart. Which leads me to my last question ... Where were all the parishoners now driving in from a distance supposed to park during the period prior to that optional parking at the end of the project getting built?

by Lance on Oct 29, 2009 7:44 pm • linkreport

Megachurches often have blurred the profit/for-profit aspects of religion. Frankly, if churches want to secure their future, let them pay taxes. As its, they're subsidized by their tax status for often doing very little in the community. One thing to remember--churches are noisy--think Sunday am, weddings, etc. Not "all the time" noisy, but at times that may be disruptive. Aby one walking down P St on Sunday am, anywhere near 16th St knows what I'm talking about.

by Rich on Oct 29, 2009 8:29 pm • linkreport

This is a great concept. I hope other churches in the area, especially those suburban campus churches with seas of parking lots take note.

Also, I think Old Dominion Drive used to be a railway. I was under the impression that all roads with "Drive" in the name and originating in Arlington used to be some kind of rail (Fairfax Drive essentially became the route of the R-B Orange Line, no?). If there's still any clustered development (or more potential for TOD) along the road, it might be a good candidate for transit.

by James M on Oct 29, 2009 8:45 pm • linkreport

Building a town around a church is questionable in an increasingly secular society. Of course, there are thousands of precedents, but as Lance said, they were born of a different time. With the exception of Ave Maria in Florida, the church is no longer the center of most cities - and it was often given equal ground in the early United States with the courthouse or some public structure. I guess, since it is the developer here, like Ave Maria, it might be a "special interest" community. In that case, fine - but I think the paradigm is outside of faith.

As for the ambiguity of profit/religious, the two biggest non-governmental landlords in New York are the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and Columbia University. NYU isn't far behind.

And the octagon - well it would be nice to keep the form. The streets of Rome follow the buildings of the Campus Martius. At least to me, it is incredibly fulfilling to be in a space that has adapted an older form for its own purposes. The Theater of Marcellus and the Castel Sant'Angelo are both buildings that have put ancient structures to new uses, picking up their forms in the process. It kind of makes the buildings themselves a tradition, not just the styles. You've done that here with the streets and the historical chapel already. I just say this because it's my obsession - I'll let you design your own buildings.

by цarьchitect on Oct 29, 2009 8:59 pm • linkreport

As far as this plan is concerned I don't necessarily see why the most hardcore of Atheists would object to moving here if they were looking, they're not obligated to attend the church and if they are the landlord you would have to be very principled (or it would have to be a really bad church) for me to refuse to live there. And it may not always be a Christian congregation that resides there.

Simply, I don't think this a church trying to create a town rather than it realizing that there could be a better pattern to their land use.

by Canaan on Oct 29, 2009 9:25 pm • linkreport

Lance: as I stated in the first part, the streets are laid out at the beginning to have as much on-street parking as the number of spaces in the lots, and actually one large part of the lot is preserved until the end when it becomes the green. I do think the phasing or the design could be wiggled here a little, glad to have all of these eyes looking over the plan.

The idea would not be any sort of mandatory compulsory membership in the church, I just think that the members of the church would find such a place a more attractive place to be. I personally would think it could be for the church a chance for "evangelization" if atheists or others moved in. As Canaan said, its really about the church finding a better use of its land, and also creating a good place for its members to move to, should they chose.

The octagonal church and others like it were the impetus for the beginnings of this project, it was a mechanism to get rid of old 1950s/60s/70s churches!

As far as churches being noisy, I've lived in Rome, the bells go off every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day and you get used to it. Part of the things we need to realize is that living in a community sometimes involves things that produce a few decibels.

by Boots on Oct 29, 2009 10:57 pm • linkreport

The octagonal church and others like it were the impetus for the beginnings of this project, it was a mechanism to get rid of old 1950s/60s/70s churches!

I personally would think it could be for the church a chance for "evangelization" if atheists or others moved in.

Okay ... I guess you could say you're 'for change' ... ? But, I'm not sure we'd all agree with the kinds of changes you're proposing, hence why my argument that an essential part of your plan has to be getting 'how to get buy in' from the existing community ... and not just from the church.

The changes you're proposing are exclusionary by nature, so you might find it hard to get that buy in from the whole. 'Cause yeah, there are non-Catholics and there are secularists, and there are even preservationists out there who might feel excluded by your changes.

Just my 2 cents.

by Lance on Oct 29, 2009 11:14 pm • linkreport

A nice job, definatley. Phasing is excellent too. I'd like to see a map of the larger area (out of curiosity) to see how this "hamlet" would be organically absorbed by the future infilling of it's surrounding suburban context (like modern London or Brooklyn grew). Again, proof that one could impose an almost immediate growth boundry and you would still have room to build for 100 years. As an agnostic, as long as you put some real craftsmanship and effort into the church, and I'd like to see it everyday.
I would love to see a light rail connection on the main street, and maybe the next phase you could design a "Civic" square with the commercial buildings fronting on it. Keep up the good work!

by Thayer-D on Oct 30, 2009 7:41 am • linkreport

They would definitely need to work on the intersection outside this church. You can basically look at it as another 7 corners and the traffic on Old Dominion through there is awful because there are so many lights in the sequence.

by xtr657 on Oct 30, 2009 9:05 am • linkreport

With the exception of Ave Maria in Florida, the church is no longer the center of most cities...

Have you seen said church? It looks a bit like a 1930s radio, in kind of a questionable way.

by J.D. Hammond on Oct 30, 2009 9:46 am • linkreport

@James M

I do believe you are correct about Old Dominion Drive. It was electrified even(!). Looking at it on a map you can clearly see that it does not behave as other roads in the area.

by NikolasM on Oct 30, 2009 10:15 am • linkreport

The church in Ave Maria is kitschy, but so what. All the trads hate it too. But you can't say no to Domino's money.

by цarьchitect on Oct 30, 2009 10:26 am • linkreport

Maybe the concept was to "broadcast" Christianity?

by Thayer-D on Oct 30, 2009 10:31 am • linkreport

I actually think the Ave Maria church is somewhat hilarious. Every time I see it I imagine it dancing in place to big-band music, like in some kind of Looney Tunes short.

And yes, I know when Domino's rings one has to get the door, even if everyone kind of hates the building.

by J.D. Hammond on Oct 30, 2009 12:45 pm • linkreport

Cute design. Makes me think of Annapolis and Kampen.

by Jasper on Oct 30, 2009 12:47 pm • linkreport

Beautiful plan.

Can the Octagon. It's a 60s suburban building and not salvageable. Also the big monumental church is integral to the whole town square concept, which is the heart of the whole design. The design doesn't work with the existing octagon.

Just make the interior like that at the new church at Thomas Aquinas College you have on your website. What a surprise. I assumed I was looking at something at least early 20th century. I was shocked to find it was completed this year. It is beautiful.

by Steve on Oct 30, 2009 12:53 pm • linkreport


I do believe you are correct about Old Dominion Drive. It was electrified even(!). Looking at it on a map you can clearly see that it does not behave as other roads in the area.

It's the old "interurban" right-of-way that ran from Georgetown to Great Falls (the park, not the crossroads).

Another one of those "lost" railroads in the DC area that would be great to have back.

by Paul on Oct 30, 2009 1:32 pm • linkreport

I assumed I was looking at something at least early 20th century. I was shocked to find it was completed this year. It is beautiful.

I think I'd personally have a hard time agreeing that something is beautiful because it tricks people into thinking it was created in a different era. That concept is called Disneyfication ... and it's usually not something 'beautiful' but rather something more 'kitsch'.

Wiping out any evidence that this place started off as a '50s Catholic church is intellectually and architectually dishonest.

by Lance on Oct 30, 2009 2:09 pm • linkreport


I would just say that the Thomas Aquinas College church disproves the statement architects have been making since the end of World War II that "We just can't build things like that anymore." From the looks of it, the Aquinas church is not a cheap Disneyfication. And did Latrobe provide Disneyfication when he drew on 2,000 years of architectural tradition to build the Baltimore cathedral?

Is only modernist novelty architecture not Disneyfication? What is wrong with wanting something beautiful and spiritually uplifting? If you want to preserve evidence of 50s architecture and planning, why even bother do anything at the site? The point is to transform it into something beautiful and uplifting.

It looks like Thomas Aquinas really got their money's worth with beautiful architecture. I'd say on the other hand that the Los Angeles archdiocese was sold a pig in a poke with their new brutalist cathedral.

by Steve on Oct 30, 2009 2:51 pm • linkreport

Wow Lance,
I wasn't sure there where any 100%ers left, I guess I was wrong. By your standard, the whole of 19th and half of 20th century architecture is Disneyfication and Kitsch. Might as well throw in the retro modernist styles of today for that matter. People immitate...remember your childhood? I hate to break it to you, but that's kind of how humans work, despite the modernist cool-aid you seem to enjoy.

If it looks beautiful to you, then it is. Trying to get into a designer's head to understand their "true" reasons is to miss the forest for the trees. And the last Architect to talk about dishonesty to that degree was that puritain Adolph Loos, with his treatis on Ornament as Crime or some such nonsense. I'm sure you where not saddened to find out that Michelangelo's work wasn't really from antient Rome or that the Brutalist St. John's church in downtown DC wasn't really an allied billbox built for the inevitable Nazi invasion.

Do what you will but there's a whole lot of beauty out there whether modernist or traditionalist that has nothing to do with the truth. Cut yourself some slack and enjoy!

by Thayer-D on Oct 30, 2009 2:54 pm • linkreport

This is fantastic.

That is all.

by Squalish on Oct 30, 2009 3:06 pm • linkreport

Steve: do you really think that a church that looks like a Victrola from any number of Depression-era cartoons I can name does not look cartoonish? Or, for that matter, looks "uplifting" and "beautiful"?

I imagine if I were to design a church that looks like, say, an iron or an ironing board, that would be preposterous to you. But if it looks like a radio, it's some kind of epiphany?

Thayer: I know people have gone through this with you before, but I don't know how you keep continuing to assert that you have no aesthetic agenda and then, within a few sentences, can't keep yourself from spewing horrible vitriol against mid-century modern design, even if it has nothing to do with anything in the post.

Seriously, the paragraph you began with "If it looks beautiful to you, then it is" ends with you comparing an historic church to "an allied billbox built for the inevitable Nazi invasion". So if it looks beautiful to you, then it is, unless it has 20th century design cues, in which case it can't be beautiful to anyone except fascists?

by J.D. Hammond on Oct 30, 2009 3:07 pm • linkreport

Thayer-D, I'm not an architect ... just a preservationist. And preservation to me does not mean wanting to stay in the past, but rather to remember it ... and as use it as a guide for going forward. Hence why I could easily understand one using an ancient cathedral as inspiration for a new cathedral ... even to the extent of 'copying' parts of it ... parts that didn't need to change, or more correctly, parts which one wouldn't want to change. For example, muraled ceilings are a wonderful thing. Why not 'copy' the concept? (Just don't copy the paintings in them ... be creative ... and applicable to your own time/epoch.)

I do have a problem though when one is trying to 'replicate'. When one tries to replicate, one has the wrong focus ... and with the wrong focus 'misses the forest for the trees.' They're not looking to take out the best from the past and improve it with the best from the present, but instead are just trying to imitate the past. And that leads to an abondonment of all advances made in the meantime.

As an example ... I think they've done a great job with bringing back the Volkswagen Beatle as they did. It takes the best of the past model while incorporating the best of the present. The essense of the car is both 'historic' AND 'futuristic'. Yeah, they could just have copied the old Beatle and made no changes, but it wouldn't be appropriate in today's world for a number of reasons (not the least of which is safety). It also wouldn't have been considered creative or innovative. It would have been considered a stale attempt at wringing more dollars from the tried and true. And actually, didn't VW attempt that by resurecting the original Beatle in its shops in Mexico and Brazil back in the 80s ... before abandoning that try?

Now moving on to the truely old (vs. the 'made to look old') ... Yes, I'm all for keeping what is the best of our past, and building on it. That '50s church represents some of the best of that decade and era in America. It represents an era of hope in Catholic America where the future included the country's first Catholic president. It represents an era when Catholic schools linked to a baby boomer generation attending that modernist church got integrated for the first time into main stream America ... A time when the ranks of executives started including non-WASP names. That church is special. To simply wipe it out is to wipe out the history of millions of people who attended (and were formed) by that or similar type churches. It wipes out the 'where did we come from?' questions that invariably come from looking at the old. And without really knowing where we came from, how can we know where we're going to?

by Lance on Oct 30, 2009 3:34 pm • linkreport

Easy does it JD. To quote TYT, you're at a 10 and you need to be at a 2 1/2. I obviously have my aesthetic preferences and they tend toward the humanist and away from the mechanical. Oh no, there I go again "spewing horrible vitriol against mid-century modern design".

For the last time (hopefully) my problem is when anybody (modernists or traditionalists) make fallacious arguments about what one should or shouldn't like for some bs reason. It's the kind of talk that discourages the best and it's the kind of talk modernists seem to specialize in.

So, please don't take my humble aesthetic opinions as a personal attack. I enjoy the give and take on this blog, but you need to bring it down.

Oh yeah, if Steve thinks the Santa Maria church looks beautiful and uplifting, don't sweat it. I personally agree with you and don't much care for it either, but I also don't care much for modernist shlock. Who cares!

by Thayer-D on Oct 30, 2009 3:35 pm • linkreport

For the last time (hopefully) my problem is when anybody (modernists or traditionalists) make fallacious arguments about what one should or shouldn't like for some bs reason. It's the kind of talk that discourages the best and it's the kind of talk modernists seem to specialize in.

Just so we're clear, it's OK if I like modernism as long as I don't bring it up, but I need to know that modernists are bad people anyway?

by J.D. Hammond on Oct 30, 2009 3:42 pm • linkreport

I was playing about the Church. I think it's horrible, but if you say it has more cultural relevance than its aesthetics, then I'm all ears. So thanks for educating me on that point. the problem with your commendable point is deciphering when something is inspired or just a copy is quite subjective. That shouldn't deter us from trying to figure that out, but in the end, people don't care as much as professionals. And since architecture is the most public of arts, maybe remembering that when designing should be relevant.

I'm both an architect and preservationist, and as an architect I've been amazed at the hypocracy of people objecting to "copying" a Georgian building and being fine with a building "inspired" by the best of 1920's Bauhaus. There where people during Corb's heyday that noticed the similarities of his buildings to planes, trains, and automobiles, but some of his artists studios are beautiful. But as a consumer, what do I care where he came up with his aesthetic. Consistency is all I'm asking for.

by Thayer-D on Oct 30, 2009 3:51 pm • linkreport

Just so we're clear JD, you're not a bad person (as far as I know), just your logic.

by Thayer-D on Oct 30, 2009 3:56 pm • linkreport

The logic of Modernism was only bad because it was absolute and dissent-crushing. The most productive time in almost every style of Western architecture was the first half of the Twentieth Century. Sure, kitsch and bunkers were built, but the diversity of styles, values that appeared in those years is unparalleled - as is the quality.

I don't see why reasonable options and shades of gray can't exist.

As for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, I love it. It's the only place I've felt religious in years, so it must be doing something right.

by цarьchitect on Oct 30, 2009 6:02 pm • linkreport

Architect, I just looked through some images of the cathedral and I have to concur it appears to be quite spectacular. The only thing that bothered me about it though is that they apparently 'raped' the old cathedral of its stained glass windows and many other defining characteristics before 'swapping' it with the city in a deal that stopped the diocese from razing the historic old cathedral. I'm not sure how a cathedral 'raped' of its most defining characteristics ... such as the stained glass windows ... was actually 'saved' by the city. It looks like someone figured out how to flout the spirit of the law (i.e., the preservation law) while adhering to the letter of the law. What a shame.

by Lance on Oct 31, 2009 10:02 am • linkreport

And actually, didn't VW attempt that by resurecting the original Beatle in its shops in Mexico and Brazil back in the 80s ... before abandoning that try?


Actually they were part of VW's original production line in the 1960s. They just kept making them there up until just a few years ago in Mexico.

by Boots on Oct 31, 2009 12:08 pm • linkreport

I don't want to get into theological discussions here, but I have to address some of these to explain the architecture.

To simply wipe it out is to wipe out the history of millions of people who attended (and were formed) by that or similar type churches. It wipes out the 'where did we come from?' questions that invariably come from looking at the old. And without really knowing where we came from, how can we know where we're going to?

No actually the octagonal church was an exercise in this cleansing of tradition. It was the period where the old churches were literally stripped of decoration, statues, paintings and architecture. Most Catholics today and certainly among the younger generation, believe this was a mistake. This octagonal church is not significant or unique, go around Northern Virginia for a while, 90% of the churches look like this, and most people agree that they suck. They agree that this period of architecture was a mistake, that the art, liturgy and music from this time were were guided by bad theology. Today the church simply doesn't work for Catholic worship, that's why this has to go.

To say that we need to save this as a relic of a misguided time is a bad idea. Just the same as trying to save Third Church Christian Science or the HUD building, this obsession with attaching inordinate significance to otherwise insignificant and bad buildings is stultifying and gets in the way of really good architecture.

by Boots on Oct 31, 2009 12:21 pm • linkreport

Boots, the 'tradition' you speak of treated individuals like children and was more appropriate for far less enlightened times than our own. Fortunately the powers that be recognized this and via Vatican II ordered the changes which you personally view as non-traditional.

This isn't a forum on religion so I won't get into why I believe Vatican II was a good thing, and why the last 2 popes have been miserable failures (at best) as witnessed by the loss of their western base of people ... and growth only in areas of the world where they can get away with treating people like ignorant children (whose role is to listen and not speak).

But the long and short of it is that whether you like what this church building represents or not, it represents something to a community larger than that particular church community ... and is now of cultural significance to the larger community and is not solely a 'church' property.

You do realize that long ago the European nations took legal ownership of all historic churches ? ... recognizing that these community buildings are in fact 'national monuments' with an importantance to more people than the current parishoners who happen to be attending mass there today ... ?

Of course, the fact that you would place a church at the center of your village shows that you understand the concept of a building serving more than just the needs of its current parishoners ... who will eventually die off and be replaced by other parishoners.

by Lance on Oct 31, 2009 1:22 pm • linkreport

I want to agree with Lance, but I also want to say that whatever my particular feelings about theology or architectural style, this is a great plan, Boots.

I'd also like to see someone do something like that to a strip mall, but fill it with machiya houses. Or the "urban carpet" old Chinese cities were known for, which is currently under a great deal of threat.

by J.D. Hammond on Oct 31, 2009 4:20 pm • linkreport

Vatican II was good, but your assumption about the Church treating people like children is just wrong. I won't say any more about this here, but if you want to continue a discussion about the theology, you can post on my blog if you like.

The octagonal church is a wretched building that needs to be replaced with something that does have significance. I know it has little intrinsically good about it when one has to make an extreme stretch into extrinsic factors to find a rather insignificant significance.

Using your criteria of preservation, virtually any building can be said to have "cultural significance to the larger community," to others and therefore needs preserved. One could make the argument a burger shack in a neighborhood has had a "significant" cultural impact, as was argued in Ventura California, and needs to be preserved. For preservation then we have capricious semi-rules that can be stretched to mean anything we want.

Instead what is necessary is to find clear-cut criteria such as utility and beauty. No we have quasi-historicist arguments to force ridiculously inappropriate buildings to be preserved and maintained by their owners. What it means to architecture is that it prevents people from creating beautiful harmonious places on the basis of a ridiculous philosophical premise.

by Boots on Nov 2, 2009 8:51 am • linkreport

Boots, It doesn't need be an 'either/or' situation. For example, in your plan you could keep the old church, dedicate it to another use for the church or for the neighborhood, AND build the new church you propose. We don't have to destroy the past in order to embrace the future.

And yes, burger shacks can indeed have a significant historic cultural value to them. Because of preservations efforts, we still have a couple 'White Castle Burgers" burger shacks remaining in Georgetown ... and now rededicated to other uses. (The one on M Street is a restaurant in its own right ... carrying on with healthier food, and the one on Wisconsin Avenue has been joined to an upscale restaurant in the space next door to it.) Everytime I walk or drive by them I remember how important a part of Washington life these pre-McDonalds places were to our nation's capital ... especially its university students who depended on the likes of them in the days before a proliferation of fast food places ... And I'm sure many a person has noticed these shacks too ... and hopefully asked the question "what are these structures?"

by Lance on Nov 2, 2009 9:07 am • linkreport

Beautiful and very well explained! My only critique is that offices might work better than shops. Since offices are usually closed on Sundays while shops are usually open, offices would not compete with the church for parking.

by tom veil on Nov 2, 2009 10:36 am • linkreport

great ideas but the retail likely would be uneconomic.

by Richard Layman on Nov 2, 2009 5:30 pm • linkreport

So what happens to the members of the church are they expected to purchase the houses otherwise the same problems that churches in cities experience (parking problems) will happen here

by Kk on Nov 3, 2009 6:48 pm • linkreport

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