For those in the market for a handsome, solid example of modernist religious architecture, look no further than the Kirkendall neighbourhood of Hamilton. Listed last week for $1, the 1953 Beth Jacob Synagogue by Hamilton-born architect William R. Souter (1893-1971) sports an accordion-shaped wall on the eastern portion of its buff brick façade, a grand, projecting rectangle containing three sets of entrance doors in the middle and a rhythmic set of 14 small, square windows to the west.
But, should one decide to avoid the bidding war – because one will surely take place – it might be best to stroll past before the likely outcome of demolition and new development forces Beth Jacob into the dustbin of history.
In the short time that architectural photographer Amanda Large of Doublespace Photography has been documenting modernist houses of worship, she’s seen it happen as congregations dwindle and, more recently during the pandemic, switch to online services.
“I don’t even know if Wexford Presbyterian was holding services,” the 43-year-old mother of two says. “It was the first church that I photographed; it’s [got] a daycare, and a lot of them have daycares and other things that sustain them but, yeah, [some of them] are going to have to sell the buildings and, in all likelihood, they will not be restored or kept at all.”
Scarborough’s Wexford Presbyterian (1963, Dunlop Matsui), which Ms. Large affectionately calls “the Juicer” for its rounded and ridged shape, is one of 50 religious buildings contained within fifty50: fifty modernist churches, a 50mm lens, a self-published book (unavailable in stores) and website, https://fifty50.space/wpc. Not particularly religious, Ms. Large, who trained as an architect, nevertheless began noticing Toronto’s incredible number of postwar churches when she relocated to the city in 2017. Eventually, after multiple drive-bys to and from commercial shoots, she decided documentation was in order: “I wanted to have a personal project that has some sort of structure I can follow … so I started looking up the churches and [thinking], ‘Wow, there are a lot more of them than I thought … and as you can tell from the book, there isn’t a standard typology for them, there are a variety of different forms that they take.”
She also decided to limit herself to shooting in black-and-white, and with only a 50 millimetre lens: “It’s not very wide, but it’s also not detailed, so it’s a very mid-range focal length,” she explains. “If you back up enough, you can fit a whole church in, but I did want to challenge myself enough to work on vignettes, telling the story in pieces, getting a little closer and showing the building in a sequence of images rather than just one.”
A look at the website bears this out: John B. Parkin Associates downtown Central Christadelphians Church (1950) is revealed almost as if one actually walked by: a glimpse of the curving wall of floor-to-ceiling glass; a study of the brick courses; a utility door; the unadorned back wall pimpled with air conditioning units. For Parkwoods United (Craig Zeidler Strong, 1964), one can really examine the crisp geometry of the massive, triangular roof-shape and how it dominates (and mimics) the triangular lot upon which it sits. At St. Charles Borromeo (1948, architect unknown), triangles are used in an altogether different way: as jaunty windows on a simple, flat roofed building. At West Ellesmere United (Craig & Zeidler, 1958/1961), there are so many different abstracted forms – diamonds, a broken arch, folded plates, tiny random windows à la Le Corbusier’s famous Ronchamp chapel, a towering abstracted steeple – Ms. Large’s photos seem to document complete different buildings and only when she pulls away to give context do we understand how the forms combine. Quite the opposite, the graceful, barrel-vault ceiling of St. Louis de France (Martin Mendelow, James Keywan, Henry Fliess, 1959) seems to blend with the fluffy clouds overhead.
And because there are no photographs of interiors, no saintly, stained-glass images backlit by the sun, viewers are free to consider Ms. Large’s images as shape-and-void, as compositions, as architecture, with no (religious) strings attached. It’s similar to a column I wrote in March, 2007, which simply listed some of the modernist churches and synagogues I’d noticed over the years (many the same as Ms. Large) while pointing out their most prominent features. “Modernism,” I wrote then, “was a logical choice for religious organizations in the 1950s and 60s … with the real or imagined fear that television – while perhaps not a tool of the devil – was at least partly responsible for dwindling attendance figures, it was hoped that space-age designs would put the pious back into the pews.”
With the dawn of a new space age, I can’t help but wonder if religious leaders will re-embrace some of the adventurous forms that Ms. Large’s lens has lovingly captured. But, if the fifty50 website isn’t enough to convince them, Ms. Large will also be showcasing her work at the Daniels Spectrum 2nd Floor Gallery curing the DesignTO festival in January and February, 2022 (https://designto.org).
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