fence transparency

This text is by Matthew Piper in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  


Matthew Piper


One of Detroit's most celebrated architectural assets is its remarkable collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century churches. Designed to mimic Medieval styles, such structures impress with their soaring spires, grand facades and elaborate ornament. They are understood to be local treasures, sites of distinction. Tours are given, books are written, holding them up.

Less celebrated are the city's numerous modernist churches, built in the middle of the twentieth century.

The turn toward modernism in religious architecture here, as elsewhere, was a turn against "historicism," seen as false, and toward the then-contemporary (the true). The authors of Modern Church Architecture, an international survey published in 1962, characterize this shift:

Nineteenth century revivalists chose to adopt the medieval cathedral as the apogee of the Christian architectural form. But we must realize that in contemporary building, historicism cannot be legitimate. Our building materials are different from those of the old masters. The play of vault against buttress, the daring originality of thin walls and large openings—making possible the marvelous flowering of stained glass—became in our time the dead weight of steel columns, plaster vaults painted to simulate stone, buttresses that buttressed nothing. Indeed, they were themselves buttressed by the steel columns. This miserable deception in a place where truth reigns supreme!1

Modernist churches, of course, are but one species of the genus Modernism, one facet of a sprawling, decades-long socio-architectural project that touched buildings of all kinds. And so they follow fundamental precepts that also governed the design of schools, banks, offices, single- and multi-family homes, libraries, gas stations, funeral parlors, post offices, police stations and more. Namely: simplicity, functionality and the construction of pure geometric forms and volumes out of the mass-produced materials of the modern (machine) age.

There are modernist buildings of all types dating from the 1930s to the 1970s all over Detroit. Many have seen better days and are neglected, their clean lines crumbling. The churches, however, tend to be in relatively good shape. They are, after all, beloved spaces, safeguarded over the decades by the Detroiters to whom they mean so much.


My husband and I like to drive around the city sometimes, depositing ourselves in unfamiliar neighborhoods, where we drift, taking arbitrary turns and marveling at what we find. While such auto-mediated dérives, taken over the ten years we've lived in Detroit, have reinforced the city's essential incomprehensibility, they have also helped me better understand it. I've learned a thing or two about Detroit during these drives, including the extent and breadth of its modern church architecture. I find myself actively looking for these buildings now. I am drawn to them, even more than to the earlier, revivalist cathedrals.

The photographs collected here depict thirty churches, located clear across Detroit's 142 square miles. They are modest or magnificent, well known or obscure. They are situated in dense residential or commercial neighborhoods, or else they stand apart. The photos are arranged, somewhat arbitrarily, by the churches' ZIP codes.

After conducting some preliminary research (thanks to both Roadside Architecture and the Detroit Church Blog for helping me fill in some gaps), I made a map of the churches and set out on a multi-day odyssey of driving, navigating and shooting.

Driving around the city is, as I mentioned, one way to begin to understand it. And my own obsessive (and somewhat delirious) few days of crisscrossing within its borders has deepened my sense of Detroit as, say, a more psychogeographically contiguous place. But I must acknowledge that this way of knowing via automobile is not only necessarily superficial (I know very little, really, about most of these buildings, about their histories or use), it is also inherently complicit in one of the dark sides of modernism as a larger social force: the dehumanizing effects of modern planning.

During the time these churches were built, the city around them was ravaged by the forces of urban renewal, highway construction and increasingly auto-oriented development. If the twentieth century in Detroit was so much about the violent, anonymizing experience of driving in, around, and ultimately out of the city (to the suburbs, where modern building and planning flourished), then the twenty-first must be about the restorative possibilities of slowing down, walking, getting to know people face-to-face. Our contemporary charge is to seek the human-scale, not the auto-scale. If we hope to move forward together, we must begin to know each other, in all our difference—not drive past each other.

I can't claim that these photos significantly advance that cause. I won't say that the act of taking them has brought me (white, atheist) meaningfully closer to my fellow Detroiters (by and large faithful people of color). They are, after all, exterior shots; a catalog, made on the road. They necessarily hold the buildings, and therefore the people in them, at arm's length. But over the course of taking them, I did meet a handful of Detroiters I wouldn't have otherwise, and we had easy, congenial conversations. Small steps, anyway, in the right direction.

For now, I hope that the photos achieve a few more modest goals. I hope they help to make the aging buildings they depict new again, to hold them up as a notable strain of the rich—and increasingly historic—legacy of modern architecture in Detroit. I also hope that they illustrate some of the aspects of modernism that are often glossed over in discussions of it as a "style" rather than a movement (which responds to, which shifts and changes). These include the marvelous varieties of expression within modernism, its references to ancient forms (forms that long pre-date the Medieval), and the often-complementary relationship between modern buildings and the landscapes in which they are situated. (I am pleased to have pursued this project in the spring, when the earth around the buildings was reawakening and being actively tended.)

I hope, too, that the photos help present a view of Detroit that is not concentrated in the 7.2 square miles of greater Downtown—the locus of the current revitalization—but that reaches into its many neighborhoods, where communities of faith endure.


1 Christ-Janer, Albert and Mary Mix Foley. (1962). Modern Church Architecture. New York: McGraw Hill.

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link - issue 29: June 2016