Ontario’s postwar places of worship: Modernist designs evoke traditional styles

Fifth Church of Christ Scientist, Toronto

Buildings and architecture

Published Date: Sep 10, 2009

Photo: Fifth Church of Christ Scientist, Toronto

The years following the Second World War were characterized by a sense of renewal and optimism. Places of worship built in Ontario during this period reflected global social and political changes, as well as advances in construction technology and evolving trends in art. Ontario embarked on an era of economic growth enhanced by returning veterans and by new immigrants who infused the province with their diverse cultural traditions.

The erratic roofline at Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic Church, Renfrew

The sense of progress was reflected in the so-called modern style of architecture. Modernism embraced new construction techniques and new expressive forms. Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic Church (Renfrew, 1966) is a wonderful example of church architecture breaking free of past constraints and creating something original. The erratic roofline and dramatic diagonal entrance express confidence and faith. In spite of the novelty of the building’s design, it is unmistakably a place of worship. The eye-catching roof recalls the daring feats of the Gothic cathedral, panels of stained glass are no longer in decorative tracery, but in simple vertical strips, and the adjacent bell tower has been reinterpreted. Traditional features and associations persist within the modernist “language,” providing continuity.

Postwar religious architecture preserved two of the greatest legacies of its predecessors: the commitment to pure geometric form and interrelated proportional systems, and the medieval evolution of structure that culminated in the gravity-defying flying buttresses and stained-glass surfaces of the Gothic style.

Congregation Or Shalom Conservative synagogue, London

Congregation Or Shalom Conservative synagogue, London

These traditional focuses on geometric form and structural daring were central to the principles of modernism. Evolutions in the development of steel, reinforced concrete and laminated wood, originally used in works of engineering such as bridges and railways stations, soon were integrated into churches, concert halls and other types of architecture. Geometric forms had been favoured by the German Bauhaus school in the 1920s as the essence of modern life, the forms’ smooth surfaces a rallying cry against the decorative excesses of historic styles. When the Bauhaus was disbanded by the Nazis in 1930, many of its teachers and students fled to England and, ultimately, to North America, carrying these ideals with them.

Congregation Or Shalom Conservative synagogue (London, Ontario, 1960) is a fine example of the persistence of Renaissance ideals alongside modernism’s pursuit of pure geometric form. A circular structure with a flat roof, it claims the honour owing to a place of worship through its fine ashlar stone facing, stained glass and entrance canopy. This last element, built of steel set on impossibly skinny columns, indicates through its curving form a new esthetic language and structural possibility.

Structural expression was most frequently used in places of worship as a means of “associating” with Gothic cathedrals while responding to the needs of post-war congregations. Examples include the steeply pitched gables on the polygonal Wexford Presbyterian Church (Toronto, 1960), as well as the highly original laminated wood structure of Don Valley Bible Chapel (North York, 1968). Stained glass is featured in the latter, but the traditional Bible scenes have been replaced by varied rectangles of coloured glass.

Another example of Gothic-inspired structural daring is St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church (Kitchener). Its four-sided plan, a variation on the Greek cross, is capped with a building that is almost entirely roof. Composed of four steeply peaked gables meeting in a cruciform, the roof is tied to the ground by concrete pylons, a modern equivalent of flying buttresses. In place of stained glass held by tracery, clear glass reveals the structural steel trusses supporting the roof.

One of the most elegant translations of the Gothic is Fifth Church of Christ Scientist (Toronto). A modernist flat roof is supported by a series of tapered cast-concrete piers that fold, extending under the broad eaves. Between the piers is the vast expanse of glass typical of medieval cathedrals. The complex, arranged around a courtyard, includes a covered walkway that recalls medieval cloisters and an open steel-frame bell tower.

Postwar places of worship in Ontario present us with a dazzling array of surprising and innovative forms, yet continue the great traditions and associations of the past.

St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Kitchener

Photo: St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Kitchener

The polygonal-shaped Wexford Presbyterian Church, Toronto

Photo: The polygonal-shaped Wexford Presbyterian Church, Toronto