The Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles had a far-reaching decision to make after the 1994 Northridge earthquake led to the condemnation of its nearly 120-year-old home — the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana.
Preservationists were bearing down in court to force the diocese to restore the historic church building, rather than tear it down and rebuild. Publicly, the church threatened to abandon the property and flee for the suburbs as other faiths had done.
But behind the scenes, then-archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony was working on a deal to purchase five acres of downtown real estate from the county to build a new cathedral and sell Vibiana to a private developer who would turn it into a cultural entertainment venue.
"The threats were a ploy to get the preservationists to drop their lawsuits, which they eventually did," Cardinal Mahony said. "But we never wanted to leave downtown."
The now-emeritus archbishop explained he wanted to continue a centuries-old tradition in which the seats of government, commerce, culture and religion together comprise the core of a city. That happened in 2002, when the land deal culminated with the archdiocese moving into the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a stunning postmodern house of worship near county offices, the financial district and a concert hall.
A decade later, a growing number of urban planners, architects and faith leaders are lamenting a trend in which many houses of worship, unlike the Los Angeles cathedral, are relocating to the suburbs. In their retreat, they often lose prominence as they erect functional but uninspiring buildings far from the community's civic and commercial centers. But, these observers say, religious institutions could reclaim religion's historical influence in the nation's cities, towns and even suburbs by creating sacred spaces in the hearts of communities.
"The traditional placing of the church on the public square is important as a symbolic gesture and as a practical means of evangelization," wrote William Dowdy, a town planner and designer, in the periodical Sacred Architecture. "A church is an image of our spiritual nature, ... and when the church faces a courthouse, city hall or bank, it reminds everyone that there is no profit in gaining the whole world at the expense of one’s soul."
Needs and values
Congregations migrate to suburbia for a variety of reasons, ranging from changing demographics to a call from God to expand. But underlying most decisions to move is the fact that suburbs are where the people are.
Census data show that from 2000 to 2010, population growth within 2 miles of the core of major metropolitan areas was 1.3 percent, while it declined 1.7 percent in areas 2 to 5 miles from the core. But population shot up 22 percent in areas 10 to 15 miles from the core of major metro areas and skyrocketed 53 percent in areas 20 miles or more from the core.
Urban design experts say they understand the need for churches to follow their followers. But they add that once a church decides to put down roots in a new community, it should work toward providing that community with structures that stand out rather than simply blend in with the strip malls, parking lots, shopping centers and big box stores.
Aaron Renn, an urban analyst and consultant, explained that churches have an opportunity to counter the transient nature of the commercial construction that makes up the town center of many modern suburbs with structures that symbolize stability and connect with the spiritual.
"Civic sacred space like monuments or memorial connect us to some larger fact about ourselves," he said. "Religious space connects us to the transcendent or something that exists beyond us, a larger reality outside of ourselves."
In some cases, a lack of resources forces a small congregation to settle for a vacant storefront. But Renn said the long-term commitment to build a house of worship that stands as the town's symbolic spiritual center is more than a matter of money or architectural taste.
"Fundamentally it's not just a change in architecture but in ourselves and our values," he said.
Renn said architecture often reflects society's values, pointing to the Protestant megachurch as a house of worship designed to adapt to the current consumer culture rather than give a sense of permanence that stands outside of the culture and serves wider community.
"The average suburban megachurch is an architectural horror show," Renn wrote in a recent issue of the online publication New Geography. "The best of them generally rise to the level of an upscale corporate conference center. The worst are like 'That '70s High School.'"
But such criticism is unlikely to move Christian evangelical leaders toward changing their sense of place in a community, said William Dyrness, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.
He said most evangelical or nondenominational Protestants don't place as much value on the place in which they congregate as other faiths do.
"For Protestants there is not a symbolic significance to the space itself; it's what goes on inside," he said. "It’s the people that are important."
Dyrness explained that megachurches also often accommodate communities that are new to an area that doesn't have a sense of history or tradition. "They are usually young families just getting started," he said of the majority of worshippers, who appreciate the variety of services such a large church can provide.
Congregation and community
But the benefits of a house of worship can go beyond the immediate congregation, city planners say, and a religious institution can use that leverage to work with community leaders to create a prominent place for a house of worship.
The benefits of attracting thousands of worshippers, residents and tourists to downtown and providing social services to the needy in the area were among the reasons Los Angeles city officials worked with the diocese to keep the new cathedral in the city and help revitalize the city's core, recalled Donald Spivack, former deputy chief of operations for the city's Community Redevelopment Agency and now a planning consultant.
"You are talking about a facility that has a capacity for 4,000 people and has public open space, a conference center and a number of other facilities that can serve nonreligious uses," Spivack said. "In addition, it was an opportunity to create an architectural monument that would attract people into the central city."
The diocese weathered some criticism for the $190 million price tag for what some critics called "Taj Mahony," but the community has now embraced the edifice and surrounding plaza as its own, said Cardinal Mahony, who has been criticized in recent months for his handling of the child sex-abuse scandal in the diocese.
"They don't call it the Catholic church, they refer to it as just the 'cathedral,'" he said, mentioning the concerts, funerals, memorial services, proms, festivals, commencements and other public events that have taken place at the cathedral's campus since it opened in 2002. "It has become a dynamic center for the city."
Smaller churches in smaller communities can serve that same role from a physical and spiritual standpoint, Dowdy said. He recalled his days living in Chico, Calif., where the Catholic church he attended was surrounded by fraternities and sororities associated with the local state college.
The incongruities of the location were apparent, with beer cans occasionally littering the steps of the mission-style St. John the Baptist church on Chestnut Street. Graffiti would appear, or a stained glass window would be broken.
"There were concerns about safety and the incompatible moral systems at play. But at the same time, there was something wonderful about that," said Dowdy. "From the church's perspective, there is a real need to minister to people, ... to let anyone in the fraternity know they are welcome to come and find out what it is we are up to in that church."
Many of those preaching the virtues of religion's role in urban planning are part of the New Urbanism movement, which advocates walkable neighborhoods that encourage community engagement and easy accessibility to schools, shopping, churches, work and the town hall.
While there is some research on the economic viability of walkable communities, very little data exists on the impact of religious institutions in such communities.
But veteran planners like Spivack say experience has shown that religions that stake a role in their community can become a stabilizing influence both visually, through the architecture of their buildings, and economically, by helping develop affordable housing and encouraging their membership to become involved in the business community.
Throughout their history, Mormons were known for staking out such a role in the communities they settled. They were unique in the range of buildings they erected, from common chapels for neighborhood congregations to tabernacles for large communitywide events, and then temples, which are the faith's most holy edifice used only by worthy members.
Although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer builds tabernacles in local communities, it maintains those still standing as historical landmarks that host religious and nonreligious gatherings and cultural events.
Currently, the LDS Church is converting its tabernacle in Provo into a temple rather than tearing the historic building down after it was gutted by a fire in December 2010. Another tabernacle in Vernal, one that anchored the church's presence in eastern Utah, was converted into a temple in the late 1990s.
"It tells you something when the church turned the tabernacle in Vernal into a temple and now the same thing in Provo. They are acknowledging that tabernacles have played a significant role the community and they will continue that role," said Richard Oman, retired senior curator for the church's museum in Salt Lake City and a historian of art and architecture.
In October 2011, LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson acknowledged the historical significance of the Provo Tabernacle, located in the middle of town, and its meaning to generations of church members, as leaders decided to restore its exterior and turn it into a temple.
Dowdy said religious institutions need to carefully consider the consequences of decisions like tearing down buildings or relocating to isolated areas of a community. He said such decisions can strengthen or weaken the faith's role in the community at large.
"As churches have sequestered themselves geographically," he wrote, "their communities have sequestered the church from daily life."
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