by Alan Temko

The long-range significance of Maybeck’s Christian Science Church, indeed of his entire oeuvre, calls for a brief excursion into history. The Romanesque churches that seem to have inspired the piers along Dwight Way — Saint-Trophime of Arles and Saint-Gilles across the Rhone in Langedoc — were not built at the turn of the millennium, but a good century later, well after 1100. A century is a long time in the history of architecture. Perhaps our distance of almost a hundred years from Maybeck’s work at the turn of the twentieth century is great enough to gauge Maybeck’s importance for the ages.

Although a monk named Ralph the Beardless wrote that Gaul in the year 1000 was suddenly “cloaked in a white robe of churches,” there was precious little architecture from the start of the millennium that by the High Middle Ages of the early twelfth century the French wished to keep. By the time the Romanesque had reached its apogee, the young Gothic had begun to appear, and almost all major churches were being rebuilt. The few surviving proto-Romanesque buildings from before and after the year 1000, such as Tournus, though handsome and moving, thus can be seen as experiments or even curiosities. The builders were part of a search for something better; and that is also one way to see the Christian Science Church.

Maybeck’s masterpiece is a true monument to the heroic pioneering phase of Modern architecture and surely the best thing he ever did. Its greatness is in the architect’s battle to transcend the half-barbarous stylistic eclecticism of the Victorian Age. Even its pseudo-historical features, like the Gothic tracery of the great west window, are in some ways Modernist statements, for they fulfill the spiritual need of Mary Baker Eddy’s church to summarize the tremendous course of Christian history, through architecture, in its ultimate marriage of Religion and Science broadly defined. And this occurred, of course, at the very moment when Einstein revolutionized our ideas of the Cosmos. Yet this blending of time past and time present is far more convincing, say, in the steel factory-sash with which Maybeck framed handmade Craftsman’s glass. The asbestos siding is a different matter, now that we know it is toxic, but the concrete work, with wooden formwork expressed, remains almost state-of-the-art as a new millennium approaches.

How great will it seem in another thousand years or even another hundred? Certainly not so great as Frank Lloyd Wright’s slightly earlier Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. Wright was facing an analogous problem in a somewhat similar American community. Unitarianism was also striving for a Modern religious architecture. This Wright achieved with not the slightest compromise with historicism. His use of glass anticipated the High Modern art of Mondrian by at least fifteen years, and the High Modern architecture of Mies and Le Corbusier by twice that time. But that doesn’t mean we should love Maybeck’s church any less. It should last as long as civilized things last.

Alan Temko writes criticism for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.