Several years ago, wifey and I were in Chicago, waiting for our train, and decided to do some local sightseeing during the layover. Our destination for the day was Unity Temple, in suburban Oak Park. Unprecedented for its time and purpose, Unity Temple is a stunning masterpiece by Frank Lloyd Wright that was given new life – with a $25 million restoration.
In 1905, a lightning strike started a fire which destroyed the wood-framed Oak Park Unity Church. The next morning, Oak Park resident Frank Lloyd Wright offered to design a new church, now known as Unity Temple. The famous architect identified with Unitarianism and believed in its rational humanism. His uncle was a distinguished Unitarian minister and his mother’s family was Welsh Unitarian. What he would design for the congregation by 1909 was unorthodox in both form and materials.
The Unity Church minister asked for a modern but affordable worship space that would embody the principles of “unity, truth, beauty, simplicity, freedom and reason.” The budget was $45,000, a modest amount even in the early 20th century. Building materials had to be inexpensive and as Wright said, “concrete is cheap.” The same concrete molds were used multiple times, as Wright had designed repeating walls with similar dimensions. In that era, bare concrete walls were typically used for industrial buildings, such as factories or grain elevators. But here, Wright uses smooth concrete in new ways – creating a form unlike any other faith-based or religious structure in the country.
Despite the austere and radical façade, Wright delivered on the minister’s request by designing a beautiful, truthful, simple and rational building. When approaching Unity Temple from Lake Street, no entrance is immediately apparent, which creates a pathway of discovery for the visitor. Wright used this architectural technique often in his Prairie Style structures from that era, including the Robie House. Visitors enter from a quiet side street, pass under wide eaves and walk up steps to the entry doors. Brass letters above the door announce the building’s purpose: “For the worship of God and the service of man.”
Guests pass through a low-ceilinged foyer before entering the sanctuary, where they are bathed in honey-colored light from coffered art glass skylights. This use of tighter, low-ceilinged “compression” moments followed immediately by large open spaces that provide a “release,” was another common spatial technique Wright used to heighten the drama for visitors discovering a space. Although the main ceilings are high, the space is intimate, offering seating for 400 congregants on three levels. And unlike a traditional worship space where the congregation all faces the same direction, the square sanctuary at Unity Temple has three levels and allows a more democratic space where everyone has sight-lines to everyone else.
Wright’s unique design broke almost every existing convention for religious architecture. Yet the temple immediately became an icon for modern architecture, and a building the congregation was immensely proud to call its own.
And this little diversion gave us a good way to spend a few hours…