No entrance greets the eye at the intersection of Lake Street and Kenilworth Avenue in Oak Park, where Unity Temple, a fortress of an edifice in poured concrete, stands. A heavy structure in solid gray, the building almost repels with planes and right angles, and the visible windows are too high up to peer inside. To penetrate is, to borrow a phrase from choreographer Martha Graham, an “errand into the maze”—you circle the building, searching in all the usual places, and at last scurry down an unmarked sidewalk and up an unassuming flight of steps to arrive at a platform over which hangs a motto in brass, “For the worship of God and the service of Man.”
Three sets of doors with glass panels lead into a low-ceilinged foyer. To the east, beyond a welcoming table, a bright and open space is visible. However, this is not the sanctuary. To get there, the winding continues—four more turns in dim and narrow corridors before you come to the brief flight of steps that brings you to a spacious green-gray room lit by the clear glass of the clerestory windows and the warm light that filters in from the grid of oat and amber panes of glass above. With Unity Temple, considered by some his greatest public building in the Prairie Style, Frank Lloyd Wright himself said he ceased being an “architect of structure” and became instead an “architect of space.” To enter his church is to understand what this means: the shape of the space creates movement, and visitors are made to attend to their journey within it as much as to the form of the place itself.
Simultaneously intimate and airy, the sanctuary seats 450 on three levels, facing inwards on a pulpit at a distance from which no amplification is needed. Though the colors are muted to match the natural hues of the prairie, the design is bright and lifted, creating the sense of light and height associated with ecclesiastical architecture for centuries, yet without European structural features such as arches and steeples. To Wright, a steeple was an unnecessary gesture: a church should not refer to a distant God but present a clear space for humans to inquire into divinity with each other. “Why point to heaven?” wrote Wright in An Autobiography.
Throughout the church are repetitions of the square that form the footprint and the silhouette of Unity Temple, a unit repeated on so many scales that it seems to shimmer through the space. The square appears as an abstraction of a leaf, a flower, a tree. Any biological form, we see, can be a square—and, perhaps, in the context of the unbroken horizontal expanse of the prairie, it is. Before the pixel, there was Frank Lloyd Wright. And yet, beyond an ode to mathematical structure as considered and inspired as a Bach fugue, Unity Temple was, for Wright, “a modern meeting-house and a good-time place.”
“It’s a functioning church, so there are people in here every day,” says Heidi Ruehle-May, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, which recently completed a $25 million restoration of the building. “It’s not the kind of space where you’re not allowed to touch or sit or breathe on anything. Our mission is to restore and preserve this building. Aside from that, we have an obligation, we feel, to use the space to help educate people on Frank Lloyd Wright and his architecture and to introduce as much arts and culture as we can into this space. One way we do this is to work with accomplished artists in the area to diversify the programming in dance and theater and nontraditional music to pull in as many types of audiences as we can to enjoy the space. A lot of the time the artists are inspired by the space or take something and tweak it based on this space.”
“I just long to see movement here,” says choreographer Winifred Haun. A Chicago native, longtime resident of Oak Park, and on the cusp of a quarter-century with her dance company, Winifred Haun & Dancers, Haun is working with six dancers and Chicago composer Renée Baker, who leads the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, to bring motion and music to every nook and corner of Unity Temple for an evening-length program in February, Light in Winter.
“Dance can be almost anywhere if you have the imagination,” Haun says. “People experience the place in another way when they see bodies moving in it. Dance reminds people we’re all human, and even though we’re in this very designed, a little sterile, a little distant structure, my role as a teacher or guide is to tell people it’s still for humans. The shape of the human form, the curves, the wildness, is completely antithetical to the geometry of the space, [but] it’s still about us.”
“There will be no meaning or poem or story or narrative,” she says. “The phrases I’ve made are geometric, angular, circular, and linear—with lots of flat line arabesques, my favorite.” Haun’s works are informed by the Graham technique, the austere and forceful impulses and vocabulary created by Martha Graham, which, like Wright’s architecture, has become inextricably associated with American modernism. And Unity Temple has been a home to dance from the beginning, with Oak Park native Doris Humphrey, Graham’s contemporary and another icon of American modern dance, teaching her own movement principles in the community rooms of the church. “A lot of dancers do work in their church. It’s an open space, low cost, and brings people in, so we’re continuing a 100-year tradition,” says Haun.
“I’m looking forward to how the space on the floor is used, and getting into the balcony levels. I’m hoping it will force the audience to look around and not just be fed,” says Ruehle-May. “They have to become part of it.” v