I grew up Catholic in Seattle, attending mass weekly with my family at the neighborhood parish Our Lady of the Lake. A testament to Northwest Contemporary architecture, our church was somewhat bare but filled with beautiful modern warm wood under soaring ceilings. It wasn’t that different from the local Lutheran church, the Synagogue, the Unitarian Church, or for that matter the Northeast branch of the Seattle Public Library.
This design was everywhere. I didn’t give architecture much thought, other than these were comfortable surroundings that gave me a love for natural light and wood. My friends all had Swedish names, Peterson and Anderson and Carlson. They told me these buildings were sort of Swedish, and thus concluded our childhood conversations about architecture in 98115.
I had occasional forays into buildings with more ornament. My relatives attended St Joseph parish on Capitol Hill, and compared to Our Lady of the Lake, St Joe’s seemed a visual pleasure ground. There was stained glass, candlelit sculpture, marble mosaics and carved wood, all with pattern and materials I had never seen. Add incense and the choir, and I was transported. I tended to daydream in church, noticing everyone’s hairstyles and clothes in the line for Communion. Visiting St Joe’s meant my thoughts wandered at an entirely new and exciting level, requiring me to deliberately refocus on mass until seconds later the daydreaming would start again.
I don’t remember going to any other prewar churches in my childhood, so in my mind St Joe’s was unique and meant for the elderly. I hadn’t visited old churches in Europe or even the East Coast. I knew nothing of church patronage in the Renaissance or the changes brought by Vatican II and postwar design. But I was an observant child and could absorb the zeitgeist: St Joe’s was old school, and Our Lady of the Lake was the future, for the families. I wouldn’t be fooled by my enchantment with ornament. Fancy St Joe’s was old fashioned, and our bare church was hip and young, with a handsome priest who drove a motorcycle and had a mustache. Perhaps even the parishioners at St Joe’s believed this new order, given they had put quantities of objects in storage and had a folk choir, too. My great Aunt rescued some of this cast off ornament and even displayed a decommissioned life-size Madonna in the entry of her Capitol Hill home. We believed that to be eccentric. Actually, it probably was. Either way, I accepted Our Lady of the Lake as my natural environment, and put thoughts of marble mosaics and entry Madonna in a category of curious distraction.
Of course now I love this tension between clean contemporary and full on old school. I value the possibilities of combining new and old, and want both in my life. The comparisons drive my art and provide innumerable opportunities for exploration. Bring on entry Madonna beneath the Glu-Lam beams.