The sound and the flooring


January 09, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness; come before his presence with singing.

The 100th Psalm Recent holiday services have featured plenty of "joyful noise," but something is missing this winter at the Church of the Redeemer on North Charles Street.

To improve acoustics inside the 35-year-old building, the Episcopal vestry last year sanctioned the removal of one of the church's most distinctive elements -- a plush lavender carpet that covered the main aisle and chancel. In its place, workers installed a multicolored slate floor with thin-set stones arranged in a repetitive, rectilinear pattern.

Now the acoustics are livelier, just as parishioners wanted. The choir is already trying more ambitious programs, such as last Sunday's rendition of Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols." "They think they've died and gone to heaven -- almost," says music director and organist Henry Lowe.

But the change has also seriously compromised the visual harmony of the 1958 landmark, designed by the noted modern architect Pietro Belluschi and others.

The purple carpet -- controversial in its own right when the building opened and by no means loved by all -- at least gave the space a visual lift and provided a foil for the stone walls and the stained-glass window behind the altar.

The slate is a darker presence that vies for attention with the random geometry of the fieldstone walls while exuding the banality of a do-it-yourself kitchen floor from Tiles "R" Us.

While the old carpeted aisles and adjacent cork floor beneath the pews helped absorb ambient noises during services, the slate amplifies every cough, every click of a heel, every rustle of a program.

But the biggest problem is that it is just so utterly ordinary, so pedestrian, so safe -- in a church that is anything but.

It's the best argument to date to start a citywide commission with the power to block devil-may-care changes to architecturally significant interiors.

Completed at a cost of $950,000 for a growing, well-to-do congregation, the Church of the Redeemer is one of just a handful of Maryland buildings ever to receive a national honor award from the American Institute of Architects.

It ranks as one of the finest works ever designed by Mr. Belluschi, a leading figure in contemporary church architecture. It's also an important early effort by Mr. Belluschi's local collaborators, Archibald Rogers, Francis Taliaferro and Charles Lamb, who founded the firm that later became RTKL Associates.

Now 94, Mr. Belluschi is retired and lives with his wife in Portland, Ore. During a career that spanned seven decades, he designed or co-designed more than 100 churches and synagogues. The best are characterized by a certain refinement and understated elegance, rather than architectural bombast. Many Marylanders also know him as co-designer of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall downtown and Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium.

Meredith Clausen, a University of Washington professor who wrote a 1992 book titled "Spiritual Spaces: The Religious Architecture of Pietro Belluschi," says the Church of the Redeemer "marks a high point, not only in Belluschi's own work, but in twentieth century American church architecture."

What Ms. Clausen found most impressive about the church was the "consistent visual order overseen by a single aesthetic sensibility." From site planning, architecture, landscaping and art details such as the color of the carpeting and the finish on the pews," she marveled, "it suggests the all-encompassing unity of Eastern thought." The changes that broke up that visual unity came about as part of an effort by parish leaders to keep up with liturgical reforms of the church.

According to Mr. Lowe, music director for nearly 10 years, the church was designed at a time when the service gave more emphasis to preaching than congregational participation. But by the late 1970s, he said, the parish had adopted a different prayer book and hymnal. The new liturgy encouraged greater participation by the congregation in all phases of worship, including singing and prayer.

But the acoustics were still so poor because of the carpet, Mr. Lowe says, that members of the congregation "couldn't hear themselves. They didn't feel supported by the choir and the organ. They weren't feeling encouraged and motivated to participate, because the sound was getting absorbed."

Under the new liturgy, worshipers are supposed to feel they are part of a larger community when they come together.

"You have to have a sense of being part of something more than yourself," Mr. Lowe says. "The fact that people can hear each other better is key. That motivates them to participate more. That's what creates a sense of community."

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