Oak Park is a western residential suburb, bordering on the city limit of Chicago. Streets were planned on a spacious grid that was subdivided into generous plots for large family homes occupied by professionals attracted by excellent rail and streetcar connections with the city. Since the 1960s Oak Park authorities have made a deliberate and largely successful effort to avoid racial segregation by adopting fair housing policies and discouraging white flight. Frank Lloyd Wright built a home, and later, a studio, in Oak Park in 1889 and he found many clients among the prosperous fellow professionals who moved out into the suburb. When Wright offered his services to the Unitarians, whose local church had been struck by lightning in 1903, Oak Park had only existed for 3 years as an independent settlement, having been part of Cicero until 1902.
Of all the buildings visited in the Chicago area, this is the one that surprised me most. Photographs of the twin box concrete exterior had misleadingly suggested something monolithic and unfeeling. But once inside, the spaces that Wright created rapidly overcame any resistance and it became impossible not to be uplifted by the combination of colour, form and surface that Wright so masterfully orchestrated. Wright’s passion for geometric form was the equal of any Bauhaus graduate but while the Bauhaus influence inspired a quest for formal purity, Wright went off in a very different direction. In Unity Temple he employed formal complexity and a controlled colour palette to develop an interior that seems to embrace its occupants rather than merely accommodate them. This is achieved without the use of curving forms that more traditionally fulfil this role. Through a variety of surface treatments and colour harmonies, Wright’s geometry is made humane and unthreatening.
From outside we see two large concrete boxes, one is a cube, the second is more of a shoe-box – they are linked by a low rise lobby building. The surface finish is an austere pebbledash with decorative flourishes confined to vertical threads of geometric repetition that animate the concrete columns that stand in front of the window. Alongside the entrance is a Wright trademark planter formed out of a vertical stack of rectilinear solid forms, pivoting through 90 degrees as they rise. The forms are harmonised by alternately scooping out a shallow rectangle or adding a shallow rectangle in a kind of visual push-pull exercise.
Unitarians do not accept Christianity’s Holy Trinity, but believe in a single God for all mankind. They favour liberal social action and value principles derived from individual conscience over the authority of scripture and dogma. Most Unitarians see themselves as inheritors of Judeo-Christian traditions but do not exclude people of other faiths or none who share their core values. They place a high value on holding an open mind and favour rationality over superstition. Frank Lloyd Wright was the son of a Unitarian minister and Unitarianism was ever present in his upbringing and these connections made him an obvious choice of architect for a progressive congregation whose church had been destroyed by fire.
The space for worship, known as the Sanctuary is to the left of the lobby. Its dimensions are those of a cube but it’s difficult to read the space because the corners are concealed by some cunning folding of forms. There’s no altar, only a simple geometric lectern that stands in front of the organ loft – there are two tiers of seating on the other three sides. Unitarian congregations are largely free to decide for themselves what shape their collective worship takes and a seating plan that enables all present to see the faces of their worshippers encourages a more open interaction. A 5 by 5 installation of amber glass ceiling lights ensure an even distribution of warm illumination and enhances the contemplative atmosphere. All gloom is banished by the dominant colours, muted, marbled melon yellow and grey that combine with the tints of natural timbers to form a celebration of natural light. Wright was accomplished in the art of creating transcendence without seeming especially interested in it for himself. He did have an appetite for dangerous liaisons which would lead to his exile from Oak Park and its respectability as he became enveloped by scandal.
The Community building, to the right of the lobby is more utilitarian, providing spaces for classes and meetings. The spaces are generous and decorated in the same colour scheme as the Sanctuary and Wright continued to maintain a near perfect balance of vertical and horizontal elements. Wright’s obsession with designing fixtures and fittings is at its height here with a proliferation of features every one of which contributes to an overall formal harmony. Wright is valued for his ambition and innovation, both of which are on display here in a building where poetry triumphs over religiosity.