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From its exterior, made from red brick on one side and white concrete on another, to an interior in which a multitude of forms blend with a minimalism of materials, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church surprises with its contrasts.
The building’s exterior — or exteriors — is a display of nearly unparalleled duality: Its north side features a curved, red brick wall with 12 thin vertical windows, evoking, perhaps, the base of a wide, round medieval tower. Its futuristic south side, meanwhile, lacks visible windows and consists of tall, white layers of concrete walls with numerous corners and right angles.
Architect Gunnar Birkerts, who conceived the building in the late 1980s, said the duality serves two primary functions: It follows the design of the church interior, but it also reflects the duality of people, the thought that good and evil exist in everyone.
“The intent was to express that in the building itself,” Birkerts, 88, said by telephone this week.
The interior, which Birkerts said dictated the exterior design, was a result primarily of lighting considerations.
The northside windows allow views of the outside but let in only diffused light, because the sun never shines through that side directly.
On the south side, meanwhile, Birkerts designed a series of high, parallel walls to create what he calls “fins,” which allow sunlight to enter only after it bounces off the walls but prevent it from beaming directly into the sanctuary and blinding congregants during worship.
The exterior shapes encroach upon the interior, especially the chancel, the interior’s centerpiece, while continuing the duality theme. The left side of the chancel is bordered by a flat wall (one of the fins on the south), while the right side is bordered by a curved wall. Rather than connect that curved wall on the right with the straight wall on the left in the chancel’s center, Birkerts allows the straight wall to continue behind the curved wall, creating a gap between the walls and allowing more indirect light to enter the chancel just behind the cross, which hangs centrally above the altar.
Birkerts disturbs the symmetry by having the left portion of the cross’s horizontal bar hanging freely, but he re-establishes balance through concentric circles around the altar and an inscribed circle in the ceiling.
“It’s balanced, but it’s not symmetrical,” said Tony Costello, director of the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives.
Indirect lighting and achieving balance without symmetry represent key aspects of modern architecture.
Costello, a Catholic married to a Lutheran, said Birkerts’ design and use of materials strike him as particularly Lutheran: “Simple. Powerful. Devoid of things that aren’t important to worship.”
Birkerts uses only a minimal palette of materials and colors: White concrete walls, light wood on pews and railings, with turquoise on pew cushions and carpet as the only splash of color.
“There’s a sense of restraint,” Costello said.
But Birkerts then introduces other materials to draw congregants’ focus to the important pieces of the faith: The altar, baptistery fountain and paschal candle holder, all are made of limestone.
“Subtle, but very beautifully thought out,” Costello said.
The circles around the altar also function as steps leading to the sanctuary’s centerpiece. Costello said the altar’s elevation emphasizes the importance of the Eucharist, symbolizing the sharing of bread and wine.
Birkerts celebrated centuries-old traditions but reinterpreted them in a modernist way, Costello said.
Birkerts said he chose the circular form around the altar and the curved pews in part to contrast the design from the dominant linear form of early Christian churches. He said he wanted the chancel’s form to reflect how people gather around a speaker, which is not in parallel lines, but in circles, with the speaker in the center.
Congregants enter the sanctuary under a low ceiling, which then reveals in dramatic fashion the height of the church, especially because entry occurs close to the oculus, the skylight under the spire.
The floor, which descends slightly toward the chancel, turns the sanctuary’s primary seating area into an inviting gathering place, Costello said.
That feeling is enhanced by the balcony, which slopes down at either side of the central area and essentially wraps it, allowing the space to feel more personal with a smaller number of worshipers.
On the exterior, too, the design achieves a unity despite its duality, Costello said.
Birkerts connects the two disparate sides through four horizontal strips of vertically stacked bricks. The red strips, called soldier courses because the bricks stand upright, contrast brightly on the white concrete side because of their red color. On the red-brick side, where bricks outside the soldier course are aligned horizontally, the contrast is more subtle.
The building “continues to unfold as you walk around it,” Costello said.
Beyond the usual challenges that come with designing a building, Birkerts faced an additional one, Costello said. He had to design a church in Columbus, which inevitably would lead to comparisons with the Eliel and Eero Saarinen churches, First Christian and North Christian. That’s a high hurdle, especially as Columbus is the planet’s only city with buildings from both Saarinens, Costello said.
But with St. Peter’s, Birkerts rose to the occasion, he said.
“It’s one of the most powerful worship spaces that I’ve been in,” Costello said.
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