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Home is where the soul is

The church's national office should be an expression of who we are

By David Wilson

Early this spring, I made a pilgrimage to Fallingwater, the iconic modernist house designed in the 1930s by Frank Lloyd Wright in the Allegheny Mountains of southwest Pennsylvania. With its cantilevered terraces thrusting out over a pair of waterfalls, the house is a sublime example of built form harmonizing eloquently with nature. It is more than an architectural treasure; for the 150,000 people who visit Fallingwater each year, it has become a shrine.

While Wright is the acknowledged star of Fallingwater, I was struck by how much the house also celebrates the character of its owner. It took visionary courage for wealthy Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann to commission the wildly difficult project. Fallingwater evokes his his optimism, his sophistication and his determination to build something bold and beautiful to make up for years of being snubbed by Pittsburgh’s anti-Semitic establishment. More than anything, it proves that great buildings begin with great clients.

As Mike Milne reports in the story, "Location scouting," this month, The United Church of Canada finds itself in the role of client these days. With the clock ticking down on the lease of rented space in suburban Toronto, the church is asking for proposals on what and where the United Church’s national offices should be.

The issue finally ignited some passion this spring. I suspect it has languished on the back burner until now because it’s more than a real estate problem. It’s actually an identity issue. Physical surroundings are an expression of who you are. The United Church has been struggling to define itself for a long time, so it’s no surprise it’s having trouble deciding on the location and nature of its flagship offices.

The looming end of the lease on the current site is forcing the issue. A request for proposals issued in June describes what the United Church is looking for in a national office. The wish list is mostly dry and technical, but the guiding principles it expresses — including environmental sustainability, community interaction and a recognition that the church’s national office is sacred space — go beyond the bare necessities of maintaining a bureaucracy and reflect some of the United Church’s core values. Will the final decision also reflect those values? We should know by mid-November.

The United Church’s two previous national offices — the first a neo-Gothic gem in Toronto’s downtown core, the second a daring modernist tower in the city’s midsection — both fluently expressed the values of the denomination at a certain time and place; they showed the church took its responsibilities as a client very seriously. And so it should again. This isn’t just about searching for office space. This is partly about searching for the church’s soul.

• With this issue, we take our annual break from our monthly publishing schedule. I wish all our readers a restorative and safe summer. See you again in September.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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