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Inspiration versus Imitation


About thirty years ago, Hermann Pundt spoke at the Department of Architecture (the Landscape Program hadn’t been established yet). Pundt was a Karl Friedrich Schinkel scholar who had published a book on Schinkel’s career, one of the first reconsiderations in recent scholarship. That was the subject of his formal evening presentation. But it was his less structured talk the following afternoon that I recall more vividly: titled something like “Frank Lloyd Wright and Willem Dudok, a duality of difference.”

Those of you familiar with the Dutch modernist’s work know that Dudok suffers, on this side of the Atlantic, from a too-close comparison with Frank Lloyd Wright. Why is it that we habitually evaluate the work of someone aware of Wright and potentially influenced by him as an “also ran” in the history of architecture? It’s neither fair nor even accurate. Professor Pundt enlightened us about the potential of that influence: we can either imitate or allow it to inspire us. It should go without saying that the path of inspiration is difficult but so much more rewarding, though an opportunity to apply the principle didn’t arrive until I considered Agincourt’s Christian Science Church.

With apologies to followers of Mary Baker Eddy, I cannot hear her name without recalling the knee-jerk observation of Fred Schellabarger, the OU professor who taught the first half of the architectural history sequence at Norman; you can blame Fred for many of my deficiencies. He was a card-carrying Episcopalian whose disdain for non-liturgical denominations of Christianity was obvious. Of Christian Science he often observed, “Neither Christian nor scientific!” in verbal parentheses.

Mrs Eddy offered Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures to all branches of the Christian faith, but none would have it. Reluctantly (one imagines), she founded her own denomination, one with a spin that I find enormously interesting: quite aside from praying yourself out of illness, Christian Science played its own special role in the women’s movement at the end of the 19th century. Her church has no ordained clergy, its services being conducted by two readers, one male and one female. Its buildings also bear little orthodox symbolism. In fact Christian Science architecture tended to be dominated by a handful of regional designers. In the Midwest that was S. S. Beman.

Beman’s churches for Christian Science bear a strong family resemblance; variations on a powerful theme drawn from the Neo-Classical “Mother Church” in Boston. The church in Fargo and the one in DeKalb, Illinois are virtually interchangeable, as the new church in Agincourt would have been circa 1908. Beman designed literally dozens of churches, however, and his influence would be far too dominant on any interpretation of Christian Science corporate imagery. Something should be added to the mix; I wanted to increase the “degree of difficulty.”

Another architect prominent at that time was Bernard Maybeck, key figure in the Arts & Crafts movement in the Bay Area. But while Beman had designed dozens of churches, Maybeck had effectively designed only one, in his hometown Berkeley, California. (Incidentally, both Beman and Maybeck were converts to Christian Science.) My challenge was to conceive how their two very different styles might have blended and to imagine the circumstances in which that could have occurred. The result of that miscegination appears below.


North elevation, First Church of Christ, Scientist (1908-1909), Agincourt, IA

I’m pleased with the result. Let me know what you think.

1 Comment

  1. R.H.L.M. Ramsay says:

    Looking at the drawing again this evening I also have to admit a slight resemblance to the work of Louis Christian Mullgardt. How’s that for obscurity?

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