Church Architecture

Euine Fay Jones and Thorncrown Chapel

One of Frank Llyod Wright’s most outstanding protégé is Euine Fay Jones. He was the only apprentice to be awarded the highest award by the American Institute of Architects, AIA Gold Medial in 1990. Previously he used his full name before dawning that it was too hard for people to pronounce and spell out ‘Eunie’. The accurate pronunciation is ‘yu-on’, a Welsh form of John. He has been interested in architecture since the early days of his life. After watching a film in El Dorado, he was determined to pursue a career in architecture. Surprisingly, this film about the Johnson Wax building and the architect behind the building, Wright, eventually became Jones’ mentor in 1949. The most distinct work built by him was the Thorncrown Chapel. Resting among the forest woods, the humble chapel is one of AIA’s top ten buildings of the 20th century and the best America building too.

This chapel best encapsulated Jones and his simple architectural style. He never had the desire to become famous like Wright and preferred the rural church architecture to the skyscrapers. He kept his firm small and accepted only a few residential commissions a year. Neither did he chase after architectural trends nor did he chase after money. It was not hard not to identify Wright’s principles over Jones’ architectural design. Both of them strongly believed in ‘organic architecture’. The two principles behind ‘organic architecture’ were first, the building has to appear natural and blend in with its surroundings and secondly the natural usage materials. He had none of Wright’s eccentricity and flamboyancy yet he does have its distinct style. He founded it incredibly dishonouring to Wright if he were to “mimic him in some superficial ways.”

Standing at 48 feet height, the Thornecrown Chapel is made entirely of southern pine, local fieldstone and glass. The material fieldstone was used to construct the low foundation walls of the chapel hence integrating the chapel with the rocky hillside. The grey-stained southern pinewood matched its surroundings. The glass chapel roof makes it seemed like the chapel was open to the trees and sky, part of nature. To perfect this design, Jones meticulously custom-designed everything from the pews; door handles, lanterns and the pulpit. The building of the Thorncrown Chapel was not easy. The whole construction process was based on the fact that the materials used “cannot be wider than what two men can carry through the woods”. Later on, Jones also went onto the build a similar chapel, Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel nearby. It used steel and glass to construct the arches of famous Gothic church architectural styles.

Differences Between Church, Chapel and Cathedral.

To help us further understand the church architecture, this post will look at the trio of terms used to denote a religious space: church, chapel and cathedral as they differ from one another

The words ‘church’ and ‘chep’ emerged into widespread use at about the same time in the 14th century. It is hard to trace back the etymology of church. However, it can be said that church is loosely used as a broader time to define worship space and the gathering of people. In the past, it was a consecrated place. However, in this day and age, church buildings are usually secular location as well. A  chapel is, however, a smaller space. Chapels can be either a room within the church or found in a non-faith-based institution. Unlike cathedrals, both chapels and church buildings have their roots in the Christianity faith. The cathedral means the bishop’s throne, and usually, the bishop will reside in the site of the cathedral. Some cathedral is also titled as ‘basilica’ due to it being unique and being blessed by the pope. A basilica is also an architectural term for the particular style of building.  To an ancient Rome, It would merely mean a sizeable high-ceilinged hall with three long aisles.

The etymologies offer invaluable insights into the different styles throughout into the history of church architecture.

The History of Church Architecture

House Church

Instead of church buildings, the earliest Christians gathered in homes or synagogues. The most initial archaeologically identified church is a house church, the Dura-Europos church on the Euphrates River in Roman Syria, founded in the 2nd century CE. Unfortunately, the church was persecuted and destroyed during the Diocletian Persecution. Christianity was not legalised then, and it was almost impossible to own property under the name of a church. Therefore, the property used was the burial sites known as catacombs.

Basilica Architecture

The great era of church architecture began with the Emperor Constantine the Great’s patronage of the church in the fourth century. He also started to legalise the practice of Christianity with the 313 Edict of Milan. This gave way to Christianity and Christians were prepared to build an edifying place of worship compared to the olden furtive meeting-places they had been using. It was unsuitable to build temples for their pagan associations. The only feasible model was the conventional architecture of the basilicas. He commissioned basilicas to advertise his rule and signal his support of Christianity. During this period, many church buildings adopted the Basilica style of architecture.

The word ‘basilica’ is rooted in Greek and refers to the tribunal chamber of a king. To an ancient Rome, it meant an ancient Rome public building where courts were held and used to serve official functions. Simply put, it was the town halls of the Romans. The basilica could be found in most Roman town, adjacent to the main forum.The best architectural example would be the Basilica Ulpian. Though only the pillars remained, the ‘town hall’ was rectangular and had a central nave and aisles, usually with a raised platform and an apse at both ends, embellished with a statue of the emperor.


Fast forward to the 11th century; there came about a wave of the smaller form of church buildings across Western Europe. This was due to the harsher conditions and cruder materials. Not only was the function of a church building used as a place of worship, but it was also used to become a place for socialisation.

Romanesque Style

Then, between 1000 and 1200 AD entered into the Romanesque style of church buildings. Like what the name suggests, it refers to the tradition of Roman architecture. It was an unified style between the West and Central European. Both the early and the late Romanesque building was bulky and compact.

Some of the typical features of a Romanesque style of a church was the circular arches, round or octagonal towers, decorative arcading and cushion capitals on the pillars. Each Romanesque building had a defined form. It frequently used regular and symmetrical plan. Overall, it looks simpler as compared to the Gothic style of architectural design to follow. This period also saw the building of many castles as well.

Gothic Church Architecture

Then in 1140, the Gothic architectural style, previously known as French Work, emerged. Up till date, it remains as the most distinct French architectural styles. The Gothic architecture could be easily divided into different styles: Early Gothic, High Gothic, Rayonnant and Flamboyant.

Being a direct successor of Romanesque architecture, the Early Gothic had a pointed arch and a considerable emphasis on walls and ceiling. It was less compact and contained symbolic and allegoric features. For the first tie, buttresses, rib vaults and point arches were used. Massive walls were no longer used to stabilise the building hence resulting in large windows, welcoming a bright and friendly atmosphere inside the church. This style started to spread like wildfire across Europe.

Church architecture also became rather ambitious resulting in the collapse of several towers. In other regions of the world, it also became popular to build hall churches. Cathedrals also became extremely lavish, as in the Romanesque era. Many gothic style churches contain features from the Romanesque era. Some of the most well know gothic churches stayed unfinished for hundreds of years. Examples of this would be the Notre-Dame de Parisa and the Wool Church in Laven Ham, England.

Baroque Church Architecture

The Baroque architecture also happened during the 14th century. Many buildings, including church buildings, were used as indicators for social status, wealth and influence. It was characterized by the innovative use of form, light and shadow. Some standard features of Baroque architecture included proportions; a large open central space, twisting columns, dramatic effects and interior, groups of sculpted angels and other figures high overhead.

Renaissance Church Architecture

It was during the Renaissance period in the 15th and 16th century where people started to see art differently. The change in ethics and society greatly influenced the building of churches. Churches became less elaborated, and more hall churches were built. It was also Renaissance architectural style that emphasizes proportion, geometry, orderly and symmetry. The most notable examples were the orderly arrangement of columns, the use of semi-circular arches, hemispherical domes.

Protestant Reformation

Also, during the Protestant Reformation, the proclamation of God’s Word becomes of great importance where everyone’s line of view focused on the pulpits.

Modern Protestantism was heavily focusing on the return of Christ hence they did not place considerable emphasis on church, physical and place. In fact, they wanted small churches, and the apparent pieces of evidence were found in the rise of non-denomination churches then. Sadly, this belief led to low-quality sacred architecture. Some of which has affected the Roman Catholic Church as well.

Modern Day Church Architecture

Modern culture pragmatically values provisioning people’s needs through standardised, mass-produced products that are functional and low cost. Church buildings became more function than of form.

Modern Protestantism, especially Evangelicalism, has adapted to this culture. This demonstrated itself through extraordinary production values, contemporary music, and gratifying the desire for programs. These churches are seen as vendors providing a design of services. Some of this has been a clear tactic intended to attract the unchurched.