Frank Lloyd Wright, arguably the greatest architect in American history and one of the pivotal figures of the modern architecture movement, made his impact on modern church design as much as he impacted everything else. Over the course of his career Wright designed over a dozen churches and other religious structures, some of which were so ground breaking that they set the stage for whole new concepts in church design in the second half of the 20th century. From his earliest works including Unity Chapel to late-life masterpieces such as the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Wright left his stamp on religious architecture from coast to coast.
Oak Park, Illinois (built 1908)
Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois is considered to be one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s major early works. In the early 1900s, the previous Unitarian Church burned down, and Wright was commissioned to design a new building. Wright, a Unitarian, designed something entirely new: a steel-reinforced concrete structure with design elements that had never been seen before. It includes both the main temple and a community building.
The Temple is now generally recognized as one of the first true modern buildings, and has been hailed as one of the most important architectural achievements in the history of the United States. Among the unusual design elements are the temple sanctuary, which is built in the shape of a square with four equal wings of balconies and a centralized podium; stained glass windows high on the walls to minimize noise; and colors of green and brown to evoke a natural setting.
Unitarian Society Meeting House
Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin (built 1951)
Unitarian Society Meeting House outside of Milwaukee is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most influential and popular works, at least in terms of inspiring similar architecture. Built in 1951, it was completed after a long period in which Wright did relatively little religious building design. But it also marked the beginning of a long period of religious design that lasted for most of the rest of his life.
First Unitarian stands in an open area surrounded by fields and trees, and is designed to both incorporate a natural feel as well as to complement the environs. The main sanctuary boasts an immense peaked roof that trails on each side almost all the way to the ground. Much of the structure is built from wood, with immense windows flooding the entire building with light, especially at the front of the sanctuary.
Beth Sholom Synagogue
Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (built 1954)
The Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania is the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is one of the relatively few projects of his in Pennsylvania, and one of the last that he personally worked on. In a portfolio of unique designs this was one of the most distinctive. Its iconic feature is the pyramid-like roof, which incorporates elements reminiscent of Mesoamerican and Asian architectural styles.
Beth Sholom incorporates many symbolic elements, such as the beige floor which is designed to evoke images of the Exodus in the desert. The roof is designed translucently to allow in light during the day and to make the building seem to glow at night. The synagogue has been cited for its expressiveness, the most so for any of the houses of worship he designed.
Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church
Milwaukee, Wisconsin (built 1962)
The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Milwaukee was one of the very last designs the Frank Lloyd Wright completed and one of the very last to be completed, being finished three years after his death. It is considered to be one of Wright’s crowning achievements. The church is an out of this world structure, as it literally resembles a classic saucer-shaped unidentified flying object.
The definitive element of the church is the massive blue-domed roof which spans the entire structure and is crowned by a cross. Interestingly, this church subsequently became an inspiration for modern mosque architecture, many of which were constructed in the latter half of the 20th century. Also of note is the magnificent iconography, some of the best in a modern church in the United States.
Rancho Palos Verdes, California (built 1951)
The Wayfarer’s Chapel in Southern California is one of America’s most beautiful churches, and one often incorrectly attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright. This masterpiece was in fact designed by Lloyd Wright, his son, and many devotees consider it to be on par with any of the father’s religious designs. Wayfarer’s Chapel is generally considered to be Lloyd Wright’s seminal work.
The chapel, also known as the glass church, consists of a wooden superstructure faced almost completely in glass. This was specifically designed to draw in as much of the natural surrounding as possible (Lloyd Wright was also an accomplished landscape architect). Combining the towering Redwood trees that were planted to frame the chapel with the magnificent view of the Pacific, Wayfarer’s Chapel is a definite contender for the most beautiful small church in the United States.