Anyone who learned Indiana history in grade school surely learned one thing about New Harmony…it was once a “Utopian society”.
Lesson / Koan : Reading requires more than vision.
New Harmony, Indiana, located on the banks of the Wabash River, is a community that began almost two hundred years ahead of its time. New Harmony was first a spiritual sanctuary that later became a haven for international scientists, scholars, and educators who sought equality in communal living.
Although many think of communes as a product of the free-spirited 1960s, New Harmony, Indiana is home to a piece of design history that reflects the ideals of this place.
In 1960 architect Philip Johnson created a paved court above which floats a fifty-foot high lobed dome, covered with cedar shingles. The non-denominational church was commissioned by Jane Blaffer Owen, a New Harmony resident passionate about preserving nature. Johnson and Owen envisioned a church where the only roof large enough to encompass a world of worshippers was the sky. The church was dedicated in May of 1960.
The church is an open park surrounded by a brick wall. At one end of the park is a dome, shaped in folds that look somewhat like draped cloth. Some interpret the shape as an inverted rosebud, and it is said that the structure casts the shadow of an open rose.
Although a Biblical quotation on the structure mentions the rose, there is no evidence that the architect intended it to resemble, or cast the shadow of, an actual rose. At the top of the dome is an oculus, or round opening. Under the dome is a statue, also commissioned by Owen, by Joseph Lipschitz.
Is it not ironic that potentially the two most significance commissions of Philip Johnson’s career are both from female clients? The answer is no, in that architecture has always been female, and the organic form of the Roofless Church embodies the opposite of a male driven profession. The simple fact that the Roofless Church structure does not have doors and at the same time provides shelter permanently connects itself to the origins of architecture. The Roofless Church is once again nothing more the equivalent of architectural nepotism. The primitive hut and the modern church bonded by both narrative and material types.
Architecture is nepotism & Nepotism is architecture…the two can not be separated due to the fact that history has any answer which an old or young architect will ever need.
The Roofless Church is a minor work and for many an unknown building in the Philip Johnson’s oeuvre, although the walled space does call to mind his fondness for enclosed medieval gardens. As for the domed structure itself, there is nothing else like it in his body of work. Although, the golden rose was the symbol of the utopian community that founded the town of New Harmony, Indiana.
Alan Ritchie, of PJAR Architects, was Philip Johnson’s senior partner in Philip Johnson Architects for the last period of Johnson’s life. He knew both the man and his work and labored alongside Philip Johnson for decades. Alan describes the New Harmony, Indiana “Roofless Church” as an exercise in redefining sacred space. He states that Philip Johnson, with this bold move, changed forever the way we see “enclosures.”
Maybe both Johnson & Ritchie need a history lesson. The history of both New Harmony, Indiana & the Roofless Church are crystal clear, if one can read.
Architects re-write history, but architects do not make history.