Louis Kahn: First Unitarian Church/Ineffable Space

Alberti is explicit about the character of the ideal church. It should be the noblest ornament of a city and its beauty should surpass imagination. It is this staggering beauty which awakens sublime sensations and arouses piety in the people. It has a purifying effect and produces the state of innocence which is pleasing to God.


For the struggle to express the inexpressible—to create what Le Corbusier called, in reference to his great chapel at Ronchamp, France, “ineffable space”—is one that has yielded few successful results in our time or in any other. The extraordinary balance between the rational and the irrational that characterizes Ronchamp, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., or Louis Kahn’s Unitarian Church in Rochester, N.Y., or Bernard Maybeck’s Christian Science Church in Berkeley, Calif., to name four of the greatest religious structures of this century, is not something that can be made by formula, and it is not something that can be dictated by style.

Paul Goldberger

A building both meets and shapes our expectations in a discourse that lasts all our lives, across the ages. It provides a container for our understanding, our actions, and in its structure can figure a sense of our place among others, in the world, with whatever lies beyond us.

Making a model of a building is a matter of finding the patterns of that order in plans and elevations, of locating openings and walls and defining their relationships, of conceiving structure. Once the patterns are discovered, the structure is comprehended, the builder knows what to expect as the model rises, and construction proceeds purposely, efficiently, even rhythmically. There’s a kind of music in architecture.

When we form ideas, we create images as well, pictures, models of thought, that help us construct beliefs and define behavior and conceive the world. Sometimes they sing to us.

In a typical Christian church, we expect order and vision, orderly pews, fixed, spaced evenly, divided down the middle, and orderly rows of windows to let in light, perhaps with gothic arch windows, the source of inspiration, again evenly spaced, all leading to the place of spiritual direction, which has a space and light of its own. The plan—nave, transept, chancel—creates a cross and figures a symbol of Christian belief. Outside, a spire might distinguish the building among its neighbors, elevate its function, and set the course for heavenly ascent. For Alberti, in the Italian Renaissance, this order, elaborated in classical style, was a vehicle itself for revelation, wholly conceivable, undeniable, unalterable, everlasting.

What is this staggering beauty that has so powerful an effect? According to Alberti’s well-known mathematical definition, based on Vitruvius, beauty consists in a rational integration of the proportions of all the parts of a building in such a way that every part has its absolutely fixed size and shape and nothing could be added or taken away without destroying the harmony of the whole. This conformity of ratios and correspondence of all the parts, this organic geometry should be observed in every building but above all in churches. We may now conclude that no geometrical form is more apt to fulfil this demand than the circle or forms deriving from it. In such centralized plans the geometrical patterns will appear absolute, immutable, static and entirely lucid. Without that organic geometrical equilibrium where all the parts are harmonically related like the members of a body, divinity cannot reveal itself.

Static, perhaps, is not the right word. There is energy in such designs, which can be vigorously developed, and their geometry is charged with divine significance. The circle is a figure of cosmic order, a symbol for the God who created it,

in whose image we are made, in which we find identity and correspondence,

and the ideal plan for our temples of faith is one that is centrally planned and circular. The circle extends out from us through our buildings to the universe to the Creator. Harmony reigns.

Kahn’s first design for First Unitarian Church was centrally planned and echoes the desire for symmetry, for geometry, with a circle within a square.

He looked at Leonardo’s designs and, as he says in his dedication to First Unitarian, was partly inspired by another centrally planned circular building, the Pantheon.

But, after several revisions, this became the final plan, where symmetry is dismissed, or dismantled. The First Unitarian was actively engaged in the planning, and, while greatly impressed by Kahn and his ideas, expressed objections against his first design, partly because of cost, but their greatest concern was its squareness. I don’t think there is a single square in the completed building. All the forms, all the rooms, including the sanctuary, are at best just off.

I had long been attracted to what looked to be a modest building. But as I constructed the model I became deeply engaged in a design that is more involved than it might first appear. And I kept getting lost. Building a model at this scale with these pieces is a matter of finding the best balance of compromises, asserting what should be dominant, deciding what can be exaggerated or downplayed or ignored—see notes. I was forever going back and forth between the plans I found and my work on the table, doubting both and myself, questioning my decisions at every turn, considering alternatives, building, taking down, and rebuilding, still unsure. Nothing fit expected patterns of openings and closures and I never got into a rhythm. The experience was constructive, revelatory, even.

Kahn insisted on and kept his initial concept, however, against objections, of having the sanctuary roughly in middle, surrounded by the other rooms, the classrooms, ministerial and staff offices, lounge, and other functions,

as opposed to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, where the auditorium—sanctuary, Unitarians use both terms—is kept separate from the social and educational functions, a layout common in other Unitarian churches.

Kahn’s first drawing for the church is a concept sketch that illustrates his notions, pursued in other work, of what institutions are, what they should be based on, how they should work, how they should be planned, which the Unitarians found attractive The relationship between individuals, their communal practice, their beliefs, and their larger purpose is a matter of independence, choice, and interrelationship, and the parts of a church that allow these—sanctuary, ambulatory, classrooms—should be kept close together and allow movement and interchange. For Unitarians, their activities outside the sanctuary, education, the arts, and civic involvement are vital aspects of their practice.

According to Kahn, the school surrounding poses the questions answered in the sanctuary, at the center. Both are integral parts of a process. “I felt,” Kahn said, “that that which raised the question and that which was the sense of the question—the spirit of the question—were inseparable.” The ambulatory gives members the freedom to leave what is discussed in the center yet sill remain close, without leaving the church, physically or spiritually, perhaps to form their own views or just keep their distance, perhaps to pause and return when they are ready. The Unitarian faith does not force belief or expect conformity, and its spirit is democratic.

The ambulatory, however, was dropped, and I question how well it might have served. In the final plan, as in Wright’s church, the congregation, upon entering the lobby, has a choice. At First Unitarian they can go straight to the lounge for small, informal gatherings, where there is a hearth to welcome, or turn into the corridor and circle around to the classrooms, or proceed directly into the sanctuary—

and enter a somber, windowless box made of coarse cinder blocks and concrete. The walls are massive, some two feet thick. Members see the thickness as they enter and will sense it once seated. The chamber still takes my breath, the cinder blocks recalling memories of dank basements, cheap housing, bland classrooms, compromises in other institutional construction owing to budget constraint and lack of vision, and, during the Cold War, when I grew up, when the church was conceived and built, of bomb shelters in our backyards, beneath our homes.

The design, however, fits the Unitarian desire for simplicity and humility. Also the faith has no set creed, thus no set symbols that might be expressed in statues or architectural embellishment. The church only has abstract tapestries, Kahn’s design, muted primary colors that run in graduations from yellows at the chancel, the source of inspiration, to cool blues at the back (and do not follow the light spectrum). If the sanctuary is rough, it is intentionally so, though the dominant gray is relieved by wood accents and planes. There are no easy answers. David Williams, minister while the new building was being considered, believed that the Unitarian mission was to challenge, not put souls at ease, that they should “face the hard realities of the day.” During construction, bricks in one shipment came darker than the others and did not match. Instead of sending them back, Kahn decided to keep them. “I believe in frank architecture,” he explained. “A building is a struggle, not a miracle, and the architect should acknowledge this.” Upon sober reflection, in light of events of the last few years, of history, really, I feel at home.

And the chamber is anything but static. The raised choir loft at the back cantilevers dramatically out into the space. The pipes of the organ, added later, stand alone and rise in ascending order, and even when quiet still seem to voice crescendo, deep, resonant chords throughout. The box of the sanctuary opens above the top of the corridors, adding another dimension, extending the space, reminding the congregation of their circulation on both floors, their purpose, their possibilities.

The concrete roof is made of four parts with inverted pitch, V shape, gently descending and joining at the center. The only apparent supports are the delicate H structures of beams and posts on the sides, in the middle, the vertical posts exposed in the walls, the upper parts freed in the higher space above the corridors, an apparition that just falls short of miraculous. In the middle of each beam, beneath the lower ridge of each section of the roof, where beam and post intersect, a rectangular mass—still not a square—that as much gives assurance of support as questions it. These four rectangles, while bolstering posts and beams, rest just above the narrow central posts, suspended.

The downward pointing roof is not overbearing but uplifting. Even though solid concrete, it seems to float. Then again, there it is, the broad span of concrete that appears more massive than it is, hanging over. Its presence is ambiguous.

The seats are arranged in three sections instead of two divided down the middle, a typical Unitarian layout that adds another layer of choice in the service. They are not fixed and can be rearranged in any configuration, allowing flexibility. The chancel, raised only just above the floor, close to eye level of seated members, is flat and sparse, denying hierarchy, allowing more options, more flexibility. Tapestries on the wall behind touch the three colors of the others, red, blue, and yellow, coursing the hall and hang together in a different arrangement, further off spectrum, joining the sanctuary, the congregation, proposing whatever reunion and rearrangement might represent.

Above all gathered, ministers and participants, enters the light of the world. Monitors piercing the planes of the roof at the corners, fully glazed on two sides, allow light to pass and be reflected off textured concrete on the other two sides, producing a diffuse light brighter in their boxes overhead, more somber in varying degrees within the chamber below, a muted and changing light like that of the tapestries. Everything in the church is qualified and shifts. Alberti believed windows should be high in a church so the congregation would not be distracted by the temptations, the transitoriness of day-to-day life. Perhaps the monitors function in the same way, though I suspect the opposite is true, that in their tentative, qualified light they recall more in the gray, abstract room present uncertainty, the questions of the day, questions about ourselves. At any rate they do not pass the light of the divine but that of nature, essential for Kahn, with its shifting presence over time, across the seasons, its changing moods. Nature may be the largest question asked in the center of Kahn’s circles.

This light has to be experienced over time time to be understood and valued, and the experience that mosts matters is that of the practitioners over the course of their attendance, in the light of their faith, its shifting presence, its changing moods. I, however, not a Unitarian, was making a model and worked in fixed, artificial light, devoting most of my effort to the exterior.

The church is approached from a side road and now rests on a site partly wooded. Entry, at the left, is set back, not visible from the main road. A major motif of the building is the vertical column, hooded at the top and framed at the base, which houses deeply inset windows and doors on the first floor and windows on the second with wood accents and brick fill between. Calling it a column suggests a structural element, but its material presence shifts and is ambiguous. Functionally it cuts glare from the sun but also produces deep shadows that will vary with time of day. Collectively these columns give the building vertical lift set against its horizontal cast. When the windows and doors are fully shaded they challenge our sense of scale as we cannot see markers for the two floors. The thin frame at the bottom extends around the building, telling us the church has a base upon which it sits, metaphorically a foundation.

Two sets of three columns, parallel, touching, ceremoniously flank the modest entry, its doors also hooded—see plan and the first two photographs. These doors, however, are off-center. Another column, far left, just wider, moves them right. It houses the wood louvers that cover an air shaft that descends to the basement. There’s another one behind it. This column, with the fine definition of louvers, is larger than it needs to be and calls attention to a function that could, in fact, be hidden. It highlights another kind of entry and has near symbolic significance. Just as the monitors pass light, it allows air, literally inspiration, this at a prominent place in Unitarian procession. There’s another louvered column behind it, a reminder, visible at the rear.

The forward section stands apart and moves away. Here the mass of brick is dominant and the framed columns merge into it, inseparably, except at the second floor, where they assert themselves with recesses that stop at the outer wall of the corridors and sanctuary and monitors, calling attention to the central part of the church, creating a dialogue of mass and space. The columns here resemble buttresses, though I don’t think serve that function. They do however reinforce a structure that reveals itself. These are load bearing walls, without hidden steel framework.

One of the window columns is about half the width of the others. Together, at the second floor, the columns create motion, resembling a not quite regular square wave following the pattern A-B-A-B-A-B. Add the window columns, and the pattern is 1-A-2-B-2-A-2-B-2-A-2-B-2. This pattern is open and propels us right, not closing but opening up the building, anticipating the other side. Each face is one part of total design, of a whole proposition.

Against the openings, varying masses with their own rhythms, left to right, top to bottom. The diagonals at the monitors are needed to face the inverted roof, but they also serve to call attention to and anchor them. Imagine the triangles pictured above, then extend the lines. A low, larger triangle is implied that suggests stability and composure amidst all the variations. Between the monitors, a notch, for drainage I assume, that centers them and provides an accent. And the shape of the monitors, triangle and rectangle, is repeated on the left, second floor, above a door on the side, adding more variation, giving another sense of resting but also directing us right.

The sense of mass is qualified when we walk around. We see the full glazing interior of the monitors and realize they are not solid brick. These windows seem to have no means of structural support at the roof or any relationship to the brick mass. They exist free, open, by themselves.

At this side, straight on, the building closes again, but we know from the other side that the rectangular mass on the left is not solid, as it covers the window column on the other side. The sense of mass is also qualified in the masses between the columns on the first floor. The seemingly thick walls actually enclose nooks with windows on the sides, inside the columns (not modeled) and benches, where members can sit and read in natural light, filtered, like that of the monitors inside the sanctuary.

This is the side that faces the main road, and drivers will see the corners and other two sides receding as they pass. Once there, members will come to know the whole building. There are exterior doors on all sides, separate from the sanctuary—see plan. The Unitarian tenet of choice is reinforced.

Again a pattern, B-B-A-C, similar and different. Here, two parallel columns that anticipate the triads at entry, along with a narrow window window, right, set back, flush with the wall. Again the play of masses, similar, different. Again the poise, stability of the monitors, in the same pattern, though the walls are narrower than those on the front and back. And again the overall rhythm of the columns pushes right, to an opening, the covered door at the end.

This opening, at the door, with the same triangular configuration, repeats the one on the front, diagonally opposed.

At the rear, most facade elements in line now, more difference and similarity of mass and openings, of motion and rest, another narrow window column, another pair, another pattern moving right, B-C-C-C-D-A-A, interrupted by rear entry and service doors. On the right, visible, the other louvered air shaft. The two brick columns on the right, regular, taller, flanking the double windows, echo this treatment on the front and offset and balance the monitors. They are taller because, like the monitors, they have windows above the roof that light the children’s chapel on the second floor.

The patterns taken together, as they course around the building, along with the dialogues between light and shadow, between mass and open space, might suggest atonal music or some forgotten ecclesiastical mode. Or quantum indeterminacy, the either/or of our existence. Or they might represent some process unresolved, resolving itself. Or one that has no resolution. Or propose that irresolution is the essence of process. All these thoughts are as attractive as they are suspect. What is most apparent is that there is no good way to characterize them and that they don’t represent anything other than themselves.

Another temptation is to extend the lines of my diagram above, incise extensive geometrical examination, and find correspondences, as has been done with Alberti’s Santa Maria Novella, again above. But the lines won’t intersect, nothing will fit within anything, not well.

Still, we have at least the sense of pattern and stability. Variations need a base from which to diverge. But we can’t define the patterns, or the relationship between base and patterns. What I think guided me in construction and revision of the model, what still impresses me as I continue to contemplate it on my table, is how much it engages, how well it sits. First Unitarian is viscerally, subliminally energetic, ineffably poised and balanced.

The sanctuary, not square but symmetrical on both axes, is physically present throughout, asserting itself, retreating as we move around. The composition on the left is arresting, nearly emblematic, but of what? Two columns stand alongside the hearth, a common Unitarian fixture, and a recessed area where the narrow chimney rises. On the first floor there are doors on either side. Entry next to a fire—what is suggested here?

On the left side, mass most asserts itself and we are most aware of the sanctuary. There are few windows, as the design gives way to a composition of solid shapes. The wall of the lobby, forward, announces the sanctuary behind and anchors and balances the other solids. It is nearly square (or it may be square—I couldn’t find accurate elevations), and is  centered in the overall facade, but not quite with the monitor construction. Again we cannot rest.

I always start with a square, no matter what the problem is.


There are precedents. Where First Unitarian’s excursions depart from a central hall, his Goldenberg house, designed just before, not built, takes a square, open courtyard for its start.

As does Aalto’s Säynätsalo Town Hall. It is a configuration that goes back ages. Does the square determine and assert order among variation, or do the departures challenge it and move away? I don’t think there is an answer to this question.

Then there are the monitors—the towers.

Churches in the past did have flat, square towers, with crenelation even, to distinguish themselves and give the look of strength, usually placed at a corner or at entry. But not four. Such towers, likely a source for the old churches, in this number are most seen in fortification, as in castles, which held a fascination for Kahn from childhood.

During his European tour, early in his career, Kahn sketched the square tower of the cathedral at Assisi. And during this time he made a water color the towers of San Gimignano, representations of power and wealth. Aalto sketched them as well.

more coming. . . .

Fortification, power, wealth—not appropriate reference or connotations for a modern church. Caste odd type Towers an odd choice, my sense is Kahn when studied old architecture not attached to notions of use or power, or historical styles, but to forms, concrete forms, solid forms, appearing in a town, in nature, over time. They are monumental, they endure. And Richards and here

Kahn saiid a plan is a “society of rooms.” That is not the case here, however, as in few instances any sense of separate rooms. But are aware.

Towers meaning, hey do not recall steeples, anything. not an assertion of some meaning, of past use, but an assertion of the process of assertion, which needs to be challenged, qualified, returned to. There prominence, their symmetry, calls attention to

an inspiration for his just completed Richards Medical Research Building.

Towers, fortification, modern church. What they do.

de water the towers made water coloralso What mean? Kahn and forms, Or towers, prestige and defense? Early sketches Also Richards and Aalto San G Churches in 19th century. TSense Kahn deeply moved by shapes their mass, presence in time. not type or function

or elevation, a likely source. AUC square campanile (59 resemble castles (42, crenelation even symbol of strength. But not four. Have no function, other than to hold the monitors. Are not spires, but blunted, But what most recall is fortification Most resembles fortification, Castles, fascination back to boyhood, fortification from ancient times. Sketch of cathedral at Assisi 22

“The plan is a society of rooms” (check full quote

in Kahn’s words, “a society of rooms.”

Dose not suggest functions of rooms.

Plan a society of rooms, links not individual, no sense of function, collective units distinct from towers. In fact in shadows, not aware of rooms at all.

But do not see separate rooms. Note

Common in all, sense of varied collective, of a world blunted, shapes World that asserts itself and retreats from those assertions, individuals part of a larger world, variety, diversity, variations, departures, together. that has Variety, activity, community assertive but not rigidly defined, or assertive of

In a great religious building we feel a sense of space that is at once open and closed, liberating and containing. The space is not simple, yet it is never overwrought in its basic conception; it is not contorted, and its complexity lifts us rather than puzzles us. Within it we feel that by our presence we are part of a historical continuum, yet that we are also very much in the present. Most important of all, we feel that we are part of a larger community, and yet we also feel that we are alone.

Goldberger once more

The mind does not receive everything from abroad. Its great ideas arise from itself, and by those native lights it reads and comprehends the volumes of nature and revelation. The elements of the idea of God we gather from ourselves. Power, wisdom, love, virtue, beauty, and happiness, words which contain al that is glorious in the universe and interesting in our existence, express attributes of the mind, and are understood by us only through consciousness.

William Ellery Channing, “Discourses” Note last sentence and Kahn p15

Discussion of world

Unconscious, conscious, unconscious, and nature. What mean? cf Alberti

“non-conscious nature made conscious man,” Kahn U talk

Begins with question, value of

And Pantheon oculus, dedication. 2 2:50?

How much a discussion between symmetry and




My model is of the original church as completed in 1962. Since then, an addition was made left of the lobby, completed in 1969, and metal flashing was added at the roofline. Overall dimensions of the model are close and I represent major elements and their approximate relationships. Dimensions of all elements are off as are proportions, however, in varying degrees. The angles of the diagonal elements are exaggerated.

There is a slideshow online, maintained by the church I think, which is a marvelous resource. It has photographic documentation of construction of the original church and the addition from foundation to completion, along with photographs of the interior and exterior, links to Kahn’s talks there, and a brief survey, from which I take the photograph of roof construction, just above, the floor plan, and the exterior photographs. (specific credits coming)

Interior photographs of the sanctuary ©Cemal Emden, from ARKITOK. More of Emden’s pictures of the church can be found there as well as, along with those of other major buildings, in The Essential Louis Kahn.

More credits coming. . . .

Witt, I have visited before in other posts.

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