Monday, June 8, 2015

The Ultimate Side Trip - How Architecture Begats Heaven On Earth

I wrote this really great post a while back & forgot to publish it -  OH MY!!

Dateline - Forty-First Anniversary Trip  August 18, 2014
To bring all of you urbane & curious Nomads up to date on one of our annual sojourns for two - we had already stayed two nights at The Price Tower, the only high-rise hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Bartlesville, OK, of all places, and had driven to the lovely village of Bentonville, AR, home of Walmart and slept amidst the art and design at the elegant 21C Art Hotel and visited the world-class Crystal Bridges Museum - we decided to take a side trip to see a small chapel in the Ozarks and this - as Paul Harvey used to say - is the rest of the story...

This Is What Architecture Does At Its Very Best
Frank Lloyd Wright called architecture the mother art. Philip Johnson, creator of, not the best but, the most famous glass house, said - Painters can just throw away or hide their work, architects can only plant vines. Frank Gerry, current architect at the top of the architect cum narcissist heap recently said  - 98% of what gets built today is shit. Don't blame me, Frank said it - not I. And finally, Lord Norman Foster, designer of such iconic buildings as "The Gherkin Building" in London (it does look like a giant pickle) said - Architecture is an expression of values. OK then.

The world of architecture is full of manifestos, aesthetic declarations and other statements on the importance of architecture in every culture. Almost all architects enjoy theorizing and pontificating about architecture - particularly their own - almost as much as they enjoy designing buildings.  I can only tell you that, as an architect for some thirty five plus years, designing a truly great building is hard. There are so many things that can get in the way - codes, budgets, clients, building committees, architects - the list of barriers to great architecture is quite extensive. So, when we decided to make a day of visiting one of the truly great works of architecture and art in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, we had no idea that our visit would provide such a profound experience.
All any Nomad needs to do to understand the impact of architecture is to take a stroll through the Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris or enjoy the unique pleasure of sleeping in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. As they say in some parts - they got nothin' on this place. The glass and wood Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas transcends all of the bromides ever written by self-important architecture critics trying to explain why this or that building transcends their bromides. This small, elegant house of worship is truly transformational.
Architecture The Way Nature and God Intended
Driving the long and winding road from Bentonville to Eureka Springs, the beauty of the Ozarks was around every curve. As the crow flies, Eureka Springs is only about thirty miles from Bentonville. But the road builders in this part of Northwest Arkansas didn't really concern themselves with the straight and narrow and, by design or not, managed to create a perfect road trip for wandering Nomads of every stripe. As it turned out, our ultimate destination made the one-hour drive seem almost incidental. Having left Bentonville early in the morning, we decided to find a restaurant in Eureka Springs for breakfast. After a few minutes, we found Main Street Café, a classic small diner, and enjoyed a fabulous, typical unhealthy feast of pancakes, sausage, grits and lukewarm coffee.
After the most important meal of the day - Yes, Nomads don't live by aesthetic meanderings alone - they gotta eat - we headed to the place we came to see - Thorncrown Chapel.
E. Fay Jones, architect and teacher, was the architect of this remarkable building. I had the distinct pleasure of attending a lecture by Jones when I was an architecture student. Unlike many of the architects who came to Auburn to enlighten the cadre of future designers of all things great and small, Jones was a soft spoken, southern gentleman, who let his work do the talking. And it spoke with unsurpassed eloquence and beauty. Primarily a residential architect, Jones defined his own architecture by reinterpreting the tenets of organic architecture espoused by Wright. Using simple local materials, he developed an architecture that was simple, structurally honest, intimate and dramatic.
As we approached the chapel along a serpentine walk through old-growth trees in the heart of the Ozarks, the building presented its front façade of glass and wood as thoroughly modern, yet ancient, as though it had been there, in that exact spot, for many millennia. Much like his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jones perfected the art of what I like to call architecture and transition. From our first glimpse of the building through the trees, we felt as though we were ushered into a place of intense simplicity and beauty. Approaching the front doors of this quite small glass and wood building with heightened expectations,  the detailing of this unadorned wooden structure was simply masterful. And, finally, when we opened the doors and entered this special place of worship, I realized that this is what great architecture is. It can trace its beauty as architecture and art back to 70 BC in achieving the admonitions of Vitruvius - Commodity, firmness and delight. No planting of vines needed here.

As It Turned Out

We arrived at the perfect time. With a small audience/congregation of no more than thirty people, we were seated and had the joy of listening to a former Minister of Music sing the great gospel anthem "My Tribute". And to make the experience complete, the current director sang several old great hymns of the church. We sat in worshipful silence, as we listened to this great traditional music being performed in a church of magnificent modern, yet ancient elegance.
So, if you ever get out Arkansas way, take that short drive from the corporate world of tiny Bentonville through the beauty of the Ozarks, to this truly remarkable religious structure. It is a "must see" place that should be on every Nomad's List of Places To See Before You Die.


Travel Quote of The Week - "Really I feel less keen about the Army every day. I think the Church would suit me better." - Winston Churchill

Video Artist of The Week - Jars of Clay - Who better to go along with a transformational work of church architecture than one of Christian Music's more transformational groups.

P.S. Next post, we pick back up on our excursion to the Land of La Mancha - te lo prometo!

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