Research Portal

May 5, 2023

Architecture and Democracy: Unitarian Churches

Once we get past the narrative of the “star architect”, you’d be surprised at what you might learn about the role that social and cultural movements had on the buildings we’re surrounded by today. There were a lot of unexpected discoveries when Ann Marie Borys, associate professor of architecture, set out to research the social contexts behind American Unitarian churches, reaffirming the importance of architecture as a reflective art form and transmitter of ideology. Intertwined throughout Borys’ exploration of this architectural tradition in America are the ever-present fundamental values of Unitarianism, leading her research and analysis across the Atlantic and back to the 16th-century Italian Renaissance.

As an undergraduate, Borys got a professional degree and was licensed fairly soon after she graduated. She went into practice expecting to just be an architect, working in professional firms. After about 10 years, she decided to go back to school and get a master’s degree in order to be able to do some part-time teaching while still being in practice. Moving to Italy, she found it to be the perfect cultural context for an architect with an interest in history. Little did she know, this would also be the place to ignite her interest in the relationship between architecture and religion. Surrounded by the magnificent churches and campanile from the Italian Renaissance still standing at the heart of every city, Borys allowed the impact of her studies and surroundings to lead her to focus new interest on Renaissance architecture and the heavy influence of emerging humanism. Florence inspired Borys to continue her studies, and soon after finishing her master’s program, she returned to the States and earned a Ph.D. in architecture.

For her most recent project, Borys wanted to explore two of the most famous buildings in American architecture: Unity Temple in Oak Park, IL, and the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York. Recognizing the connections in their functions as places of Unitarian worship and unique building styles, Borys wanted to go deeper into the relationship between the two churches in the broader context of Unitarian church design as well as their roles as places of worship alongside their architectural significance. Diving into this research, she found that understanding humanism and its role in Unitarian philosophy and the construction of an American identity would hold the key.

While a long and complex historical movement, the simplistic explanation of humanism’s effect on architecture and society during the 16th-century Italian Renaissance period is the emergence of individual dignity and recognition of that within the church and society. Echoes of these ideas spread westward and influenced Enlightenment philosophy, pushing forth the idea that each person has dignity and worth beyond their place in a hierarchy or societal role. In religious spheres, the growth of American Unitarianism coincided with this movement, splitting away from Congregational views to focus on the “dignity of man,” rather than the Calvinist “depravity of man” says Borys.

Enlightenment philosophies and the force of Unitarians in influencing the new country’s development (including founders such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) in conjunction with calls for distinctly American art forms led to the emergence of innovative designs that influenced all of American architecture.

In elaborating on the linkages between the art form and America’s democratic fixation, Borys ties the foundational idea of humanism to the way Unitarian churches are constructed – both theoretically and literally.

“Part of this idea is the concept of personal choice inherent within Unitarian churches- that we have the option to enter and only cross that threshold if you choose to, that everyone who then shares that space wants to be there. 20th-century buildings also extend a welcome in the sense that they are less grandiose, more every day and more bare materials but still done with architectural craft and crispness… they feel accessible and welcome to all.”

Of course, this historical account of choice and inclusivity massively oversimplifies the reality of complication and conflict with these ideals within Unitarian communities. As Borys discusses in her book, the presumption that Unitarian congregations were all abolitionist was a generalization that was not completely true. It arises from the many ministers and leaders that were public figures in the movement, but congregations, even those in the North, were filled with merchants who made money off of the slave-based economy of the South. However, the leaders were upholding the philosophy inherent to the belief system: the worth and dignity of every individual.

“Unitarian philosophy is key to understanding American architectural history not only because of specific buildings or sites of interest but also in the way that they were constantly driving new innovation and moving forward while honoring tradition and developing a distinct approach.”