For members of a religious denomination that prizes outreach and engagement with the wider world— hence its signature publication, the Christian Science Monitor—the Greenwich Village home of New York's Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist, posed a problem.
The six-story building on MacDougal Street, near Washington Square Park, had belonged to the church since the 1920s. It was built in 1891, as a box factory in the Classical Revival style, by architects Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell, but received a startling facelift in 1966, when the façade was bricked over, leaving only one narrow slit of a window. Although the chapel inside (also dating to 1966) had architectural drama, with extruded white plywood tubes that hang down from the ceiling, it was of course invisible from the street, and the reading room—meant to be a welcoming space—was sad and cramped, tucked away in a corner.
Amazingly, the floors above the chapel had sat empty since the '20s. The small congregation, which now numbers about 60, could never find a use for them.
A few years ago, aware that they were letting prime Manhattan real estate gather dust, church members decided to trade a space they didn't need for one they liked better: They would sell the upper floors of 171 MacDougal to fund a complete renovation of the chapel, reading room, and basement Sunday school.
Two church members were searching for architects online and came across a book by hanrahanMeyers architects, The Four States of Architecture. They loved it, and in 2005 the church approached principals Thomas Hanrahan and Victoria Meyers. Andrea McCormick, the church's real estate manager, says they clinched the commission during the first interview. “They just got it,” McCormick recalls. “We were at their offices; they pulled a book out, opened to a picture, and said, ‘Something like this?' I said, ‘That's it.' It was a picture of a chapel with high ceilings, a lot of light.”
Victoria Meyers says the chapel she showed McCormick that day was Le Corbusier's 1954 masterpiece, Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France. As an architecture student, Meyers had compared it to a church designed by the 17th century Italian architect Camillo-Guarino Guarini.
Guarini was a mathematician as well as an architect, deeply interested in the potential of optical illusion. He seems a natural model for Meyers, who is fascinated by higher mathematics. She and Hanrahan began the project with the concept of a space defying clear limits, exemplified by geometric figures like a hypercube, an infinity sign, and a Möbius strip. The goal was to “push” surfaces so that the space turned into something more interesting than a box, says Hanrahan. “We used some of the funny characteristics of the space—it's not a pure box—and we exploited bumps and added some other curves. So we created this fairly complex, inwardly curving space.” The congregation embraced their approach, says Meyers: “They love curves.”
Earlier this year, the church sold the top floors of the building to a developer, who is converting them to condos, for $5.2 million. (The church has declined to state the cost of the renovation.) When the new space is completed—by late summer or fall of this year, if construction stays on schedule—passersby will stop to look into a glass-fronted, light-suffused reading room outfitted with comfortable seats, laptops, and a library wall of Christian Science publications, ranging from the Monitor to Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy's opus Science and Health.
Past the reading room they'll see the Infinity Chapel, its double-height, curved back wall refracting light from the courtyard and allowing more in through large skylights. The viewer's sightline will stretch all the way to the bamboo-planted courtyard. At night, the plane of the chapel ceiling will be washed with light, and the entire space will glow.
“The relationship of the sanctuary to the reading room to the street is a very open, public sequence,” says Hanrahan. “The reading room is kind of an entrance lobby. It's one continuous space of different heights.”
Decoration will be kept to a minimum and will be organic to the space, the architects say. Glass-topped light monitors, doubling as book pedestals in the reading room, will carry light into the basement. Thick pieces of old-growth ash from Miya Shoji, a Japanese arts showroom, will accent the front windows; a Miya Shoji ash bench will sit against the back wall.
The sparseness of the interior reflects more than the architects' taste, as Hanrahan points out; it suits a religious group that prioritizes words over images or ritual objects. “[Christian Scientists] are not interested in iconic representation so much as abstract qualities,” he says. A quotation, most likely from Science and Health, will emblazon a frosted glass panel in the sanctuary.
All of this marks a radical departure from the typical Christian Science Reading Room of yore, which, with its dated furnishings and texts on display in a storefront window, had the fusty air of a used bookstore. The Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist, and other congregations around the country now want a very different public face, McCormick says. “You don't want chairs that look like your grandmother's attic. You don't want it to look like a Christian bookstore.”
When the new reading room and chapel are finished, McCormick predicts, “It'll be intriguing enough that [people] will come in and say, ‘What is this all about?' Anyone even interested in design will want to come in and see this incredible space.”