Sövik’s House for the People of God

Volume 51, Issue 2 :: Mark Torgerson

On the centenary of his birth, Edward Anders Sövik’s designs and ideas about religious architecture continue to reverberate.

Interior view of First Lutheran Church, Onalaska, Wisconsin

Interior view of First Lutheran Church, Onalaska, Wisconsin, completed in 1954. The interior of the worship space was reversed in 2000 in order to allow for a new primary entrance with spacious gathering area. The chancel area was moved to the opposite end of the worship space. The original, rectangular marble altar table was removed and the communion rail was adjusted. The original pulpit and font were retained. Photo courtesy of the author

Architect Edward Anders Sövik

Architect Edward Anders Sövik’s concept of a new direction in architecture for worship was based on his belief that ‘a church should not look like a church.’ Photo courtesy of SMSC Architects.

A remarkable convergence of movements shaped mid-20th-century church design in Europe and the United States. Momentum for liturgical renewal was building in Christian circles at the dawn of the 20th century. Concern for relating liturgical activities to contemporary culture and encouraging an increased level of participation among laity (both in theological understanding and practice) were central to this movement. Groundwork for this renewal effort began in Europe and spread to the US especially through a network of Roman Catholic liturgical scholars. By the mid-20th century Protestants were inspired to join their efforts. Ecumenical activities between Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant leaders also flowered in the 19th century and gathered momentum into the 20th century. Cooperation between denominations in international mission work developed into cooperation in meeting national social needs in urban communities, especially in the wake of significant migration movements between Europe and North America and in the aftermath of two world wars.

New architects, enthusiastic about embracing the modern doctrine of design, took up the challenge of creating religious buildings according to the values of the renewal movement and modernism. Edward Anders Sövik was one of these young, enthusiastic architects who translated the modern movement of design into religious buildings for Catholic and Protestant congregations across the US from 1950-1996. This midwestern American architect was born in Kikungshan (now, Jigongshan), China on June 9, 1918, to Norwegian Lutheran missionaries serving in the Henan province. Piety in faithfulness to Christ, service to neighbor, and ecumenical cooperation were central formational influences upon Sövik; the priorities of the liturgical renewal movement and ecumenical movement also resonated with him.

Sövik left China in 1935 to attend St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, attracted to the study of art due in part to the mentoring of an art professor, Arnold Flaten, who appreciated the historical development of both the Christian tradition and art. Following the completion of his bachelor’s degree at St. Olaf, Sövik pursued studies in both painting and theology. He spent a year developing his painting skills at the Art Student League, New York City, from 1939-40. Sövik followed this year with three semesters of theological studies at Luther Theological Seminary (the denominational seminary for the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America), St. Paul, from 1940-41. At the end of this two-year period Sövik’s intention was to be a thoughtful artist, conversant with the content of the Christian faith, who might serve God and the church through the creation of beautiful art. America’s entrance into the conflict of the Second World War changed his plans.

Becoming an Architect

In January 1942 Sövik enlisted in the Marine Corps and began his formal training as a Navy fighter pilot. Another officer with whom Sövik was friends intended to study architecture following his tour of service. Sövik became interested in studying architecture through this connection. Following his discharge from the Marine Corps, Sövik entered Yale University to study architecture. The Yale Department of Architecture had made a transition from its previous Beaux-Arts emphasis to modern design gradually from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s. Guest critics in the Department of Architecture during Sövik’s tenure included Louis I. Kahn, Paul Schweikher, Carl Koch, Gardner Dailey, Antonin Raymond, Eero Saarinen, and Pietro Belluschi. While Yale’s approach to design was not perhaps as dogmatic in adherence to the Bauhaus approach of Harvard, a commitment to pragmatism, abstraction in design, and utilization of new materials and technology was imprinted on Sövik.

Church design proved to intrigue Sövik at Yale. For his senior thesis project, “A Design for the Lars Boe Memorial Chapel, St. Olaf College, Northfield Minnesota,” he designed a modern church in the spirit of many post-war European church designs, with a unified nave and chancel, set off from one another by a slightly elevated altar area. Contemporary building materials (concrete, steel, and glass) were expressed through a thoughtful if Spartan aesthetic. The design even featured a moveable screen near the chancel area in order to facilitate shielding the sacramental furnishings should the space be needed for non-liturgical purposes. With training in both theological and architectural studies, Sövik set off in early 1949 to practice in Northfield, Minnesota, joined architect Gerhard C. Peterson, and worked on numerous renovation and new construction church building projects for upper mid-western, primarily Lutheran, congregations.

In 1953 Sövik developed a partnership with architects Sewell J. Mathre (1922-2016) and Norman E. Madson (1922-2013) to establish a new architectural firm, E. A. Sövik and Associates. Institutional design for religion and education became the focus of the practice. In the years immediately following World War II there was a tremendous investment in building projects for religious and educational use. Sövik and Mathre focused on the development of church projects primarily in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and North and South Dakota. From 1965 to Sövik’s retirement, numerous United Methodist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Episcopal churches contracted with his office.

Intellectual Bases for Design

Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Dysart, Iowa (1961)

Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Dysart, Iowa, completed in 1961. The shallow, low chancel has the liturgical appointments of pulpit, altar-table, and font. A screen for projection has been added to the rear wall of the chancel recently, requiring a shifting of the suspended Greek-style cross off-center.

Sövik’s curiosity and ability to navigate historical and theological content facilitated an ambitious reading agenda. The ecumenical movement was increasing in momentum in the mid-20th century as well, so his reading material embraced ideas from Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars alike. From the 1950s-1970s Sövik read (in both English and German) writers such as Hans Lietzmann, Adolf von Harnack, Josef Jungmann, Gregory Dix, G.W.O. Addleshaw, Frederick Etchells, J.G. Davies, Paul Thiry, Otto Bartning, Rudolf Schwarz, Ferdinand Pfammatter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Anton Henze, Vilmos Vajta, Hendrik Kraemer, William Stringfellow, Richard Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Peter Berger, and Rudolf Otto. Sövik was especially drawn to theological ideas concerning elimination of a hierarchy between clergy and laity in ministry, the full and active participation of the whole congregation in worship, and service to neighbor (both inside and outside of the faith community). The overall external appearance of the church building should relate to the ordinary, vernacular expressions of the day. Beauty in design was a priority, but it was to be recognized in the excellence of selected materials and creative expression. His readings, conversation partners, and contemplation led him to focus on a vision of Christ as the humble servant of all, present in and through both the liturgical and non-liturgical activities of the local faith community. The primary purpose of the religious building thus was to be considered a “house for the people of God.” The building fulfilled a role in bearing witness to the presence of Christ in community (a public witness), but it was to demonstrate an image of Jesus as servant to the world in all of life’s activities. A strong accent was placed on the hospitality of the built environment. Sövik became an influential advocate for an accent on the “immanence” of God (“God with us”) in church design.

It is important to contextualize Sövik in his promotion of church designs oriented toward a “house for the people of God.” Multiple influences were underway. The Social Gospel movement (initiated in the late 19th century) had set the stage for 20th-century Protestant congregations to consider how their religious activities might address issues of inequity and justice in their communities. In the Catholic Church, the liturgical renewal movement focused on clarifying the theological content of worship and mobilizing all of the laity in active participation. By the mid-20th century, post-war concerns for accommodating increasing numbers of congregants and addressing their social needs emerged. All of these emphases elevated the significance of the people of God in worship and ministry to others. In church architecture circles conversations articulating concern for relating to the people of the world in modest and vernacular architectural language (vs. in “triumphal” or “other-worldly” expressions) were unfolding. Expanding church designs to include a wide variety of social activities (both ministry and entertainment oriented) developed. Concern for building rapidly at minimal cost was increasingly emphasized. Modern architecture appeared to offer an approach to church design that would assist with meeting this array of priorities. Sövik absorbed this agenda and sought to work toward design solutions that would fulfill this range of needs.

Gaining a National Voice

Northfield Methodist Church (now United Methodist Church), Northfield (1966)

Northfield Methodist Church (now United Methodist Church), Northfield, Minnesota, competed 1966. Textile art has been added to the décor through the years and some of the fixed bench pews have been replaced by matching oak chairs to increase flexible seating.

Sövik was not alone in his developing church architecture prioritizing vernacular, hospitable, servant-oriented buildings. He was unusually active in both ecclesiastical and architectural circles though and thus had an important role to play in disseminating modern church design. Sövik actively accepted leadership roles in national and international, ecumenical initiatives concerning congregational life and church design. From 1954, Sövik was a part of the first Commission on Architecture of the National Council of Church’s Department of Worship and the Arts. He worked with theologian Marvin Halverson and architects such as G.E. Kidder-Smith, William Conklin, Herbert Johe, and Harold Spitznagel exploring the relationship between art, theology, and architecture. In 1959 he was chosen to be a delegate from the US for the International Conference on Church Building, Bossey, Switzerland. He held a leadership role in the Church Architectural Guild of America (CAGA) from 1961-65, even editing the newsletter from 1961. His voice in the guild was joined by those of Robert Hovda, Frank Kacmarcik, Robert Rambusch, Glen Gothard, and John Morse, Catholic and Protestant consultants and designers seeking to promote active congregational engagement (liturgical and non-liturgical) through the renewal of church design. Sövik became the first president of the Guild of Religious Architecture in 1965 when the CAGA decided to become an ecumenical affiliate of the American Institute of Architects, remaining in this position until 1968. Sövik served as chair of the editorial board of the Guild’s journal Faith & Form from 1967-1970. He was on the board of directors of the Liturgical Conference from 1965-71 and served as president of the Interfaith Research Center (IRC), 1968-72. The IRC created an International Congress on Religion, Architecture, and the Visual Arts. Sövik served on the steering committee for all three meetings, held in New York City and Montreal in 1967, in Brussels in 1970, and in Jerusalem in 1973.

Writing, publishing, and speaking accompanied Sövik’s many appointments. From 1959-1973 he published at least 35 articles concerning theology, worship, and church design in periodicals and books (as well as many book reviews). In and through these activities his ideas concerning contemporary church design evolved, solidified, and were disseminated. His conclusions from this period culminated in his writing the book Architecture for Worship published by Augsburg Press in 1973. The book proved to be popular and added momentum to Sövik’s influence. Sövik penned a reasoned argument for an approach to church design focused on a “house for the people of God.” Priorities of servant-oriented buildings included modest, modern, vernacular-inspired architectural designs; use of contemporary building materials; centrally planned, flexible worship spaces (including minimizing the distance between clergy and laity and accommodating liturgical and non-liturgical activities); maintaining the integrity of materials (or “honesty” in expression; no imitation or artifice is pursued); and embracing beauty through both encountering the familiar and the pursuit of excellence in all things (all beauty can be a portal to the transcendent). Many of the emphases found in Architecture for Worship can be found in the document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, published in 1978. It is likely that several of Sövik’s professional colleagues helped to develop this document that was intended to assist Catholic congregations in renewing their church designs in the wake of Vatican II liturgical priorities. Environment and Art in Catholic Worship is not dependent on Sövik’s work, but it is a contemporaneous document that conveys many of the same interpretations and concerns. It is interesting to note that another document, The Environment for Worship, edited by The Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, from 1980 includes a chapter written by Sövik. Other contributors included William Conklin, Robert Hovda, Godfrey Diekmann, Louis Weil, Richard Vosko, and Pierre Jounel. This document was intended to continue a conversation begun in Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. Sövik was one of many voices focused on liturgical renewal emphasizing God at work in the world in and through God’s people.

Indelible Mark on Architecture

Sövik’s professional achievements were recognized by his professional peers in both architectural and ecclesiastical domains. He was designated a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects in 1967. He received numerous awards for excellence in architectural design from such organizations as AIA/Minnesota; the Church Architectural Guild of America; the Guild for Religious Architecture; and the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art, and Architecture. Sövik was the first recipient of IFRAA’s Edward S. Frey Memorial Award for “great talent and long-term commitment in the field of religious architecture” in 1981. He was awarded the Gold Medal by AIA/Minnesota in 1982. In 1993 he was awarded the 20th Anniversary Bene Award for “most influential liturgical architect of the last 20 years” by Modern Liturgy for his design work, teaching, writing, and participation in interfaith organizations. And in 2003, Sövik was the first recipient of the Godfrey Diekmann award from the North American Academy of Liturgy for having made a significant contribution to liturgical life in North America.

Development of Sövik’s liturgical design can be glimpsed in examining a handful of his 400 or so church-related projects. Sövik believed strongly in his theological and architectural ideals, but he also sought to honor the priorities and limits of each congregational client. He knew that certain styles of modern design were popular, and he sometimes emulated them. The ultimate design for every church was the product of a dynamic exchange between the congregation and Sövik. He always sought to educate his clients though, in helping to move them beyond personal aesthetic preferences to understanding theological and liturgical priorities noted above. Often he would provide the congregation with a written statement outlining how the new construction or renovation design related to theological belief and ritual practice.

Saint Leo Catholic Church bronze tabernacle on red oak stand

Saint Leo Catholic Church bronze tabernacle on red oak stand designed by Frank Kacmarcik. The tabernacle is located in an area with oak chair seating that can function as a reservation chapel adjacent to the primary worship space.

Sövik was influenced by the writings and designs of modern architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier. He favored church designs by architects such as Auguste Perret, Otto Bartning, Dominikus Böhm, Rudolf Schwarz, and especially Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Concerns for economy and short construction timelines fueled implementation of “A-frame” style buildings from the late-1940s to the mid-1960s. Sövik participated in this trend. In 1950 he designed a modest “A-frame” congregational space for Riverside Lutheran Bible Camp, Story City, Iowa. The longitudinal space had laminated wooden arches and tile flooring. It originally had two long banks of pews facing a low, shallow chancel area. At First Lutheran Church (1954), Onalaska, Wisconsin, Sövik used an “A-frame” style as well, but incorporated features that were less typical. A rectangular plan was utilized, but the long axis was minimally longer than wide. Two banks of oak pews faced an altar area that was elevated by only three steps. Rows of pews were set on two additional sides of the altar area, providing seating for choir members, clergy, or others. At First Lutheran Church Sövik was showing early signs of wanting to minimize the distance between clergy and laity, merge the nave and chancel, surround the altar with seating on three sides, and reference symbols via beautiful art work.

Sövik’s liturgical design moved toward more centrally oriented worship spaces by the early 1960s. Centralized spaces were being featured with regularity in European church design books and journals. An early example of a design based on the equi-length arms of a Greek cross can be found in Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church (1961), Dysart, Iowa. The worship space was a near square, a little wider than deep. Each corner was slightly indented to imitate the shape of a Greek-style cross. Across the front was a shallow chancel area, just two steps above the nave. Across the rear of the space was a shallow balcony, which originally held the organ and choir seating. Two banks of oak pews faced the chancel. The rectangular oak altar table, oak pulpit (with sounding board), and limestone font were located in the chancel. A communion rail was placed across the front of the chancel. Sövik continued to develop his theological ideal of a non-hierarchical community of believers at worship, utilizing materials of the time expressed in forms that referenced historic symbols and practice.

By 1965, Sövik began to work with a minimally rectangular design for a centralized worship space. A low platform area with pulpit and altar/table was set along the long axis surrounded by congregational seating on three sides. Examples of this design strategy were featured in the post-war churches of Rudolf Schwarz and other European architects. Northfield Methodist Church (1965-66; now, United Methodist Church), Northfield, Minnesota is an early example. As with Zion Lutheran, concrete, steel, and brick were the primary building materials. The sanctuary, fellowship hall, classrooms, and offices were organized with a primary entrance marked by an arch with a Greek-style cross (no bell tower). The worship space was rectangular, slightly wider than deep, and approximately two stories in height. The distinct chancel area was now expressed as an island, three steps above the nave floor. Seating was located on three sides of the area. A rectangular oak altar table and oak pulpit were placed here. A Greek-style cross on a wooden pole was anchored in the midst of the congregational seating, between the chancel island and the entrance to the space. Sövik introduced a more pronounced use of color in this design. Window glazing (floor to ceiling) near the font was composed of panes of red, orange, and yellow glass (referencing the coming of the Holy Spirit). A set of four large arched windows to one side of the chancel island was expressed in multi-colors, dominated by shades of blue and green. Accent ceiling trusses in the ceiling were painted turquoise.

Sövik’s ‘Non-Church’

Interior of Central United Methodist

Interior photo of Central United Methodist represents Sövik’s original design for the ‘centrum’ space. The central platform is composed of moveable oak panels; the architect designed the furniture and textile installations as well. Photo courtesy of SMSC Architects

The design of Northfield Methodist Church became a template for what Sövik ultimately called a “non-church.” A “non-church” approach for Sövik meant a design for a religious building that could function equally well for both liturgical and non-liturgical activities. Sövik chose this designation of “non-church” to try to help congregations conceive of their building as a resource for service to those both inside and outside of the faith community. Saint Leo Catholic Church (1968-69), Pipestone, Minnesota, and Central United Methodist Church (1971-72; now, Trinity United Methodist Church), Charles City, Iowa, are two examples of Sövik’s ideal worship space. The exterior designs of both buildings resembled other public buildings (like schools, libraries, or auditoriums), constructed of concrete, brick, steel, and glass. Both had a large gathering area (“concourse” is the term Sövik adopted for this space) just outside the primary entrance to the “centrum” (Sövik’s term for the flexible room that can be used for worship and non-worship activities). A fixed pool with running water was located near the primary entrance of the centrum to accommodate baptisms. The centrum was an elongated square, with a slightly elevated area for altar/table and pulpit/ambo located along one of the longer sides, surrounded by seating. The area with liturgical appointments was fixed at Saint Leo’s (a concrete island) but was mobile (made of multiple oak panels that can be stacked) at Trinity. Arrangements of fixed, short oak pews provided seating at Saint Leo’s. Padded, oak chairs that be rearranged and stacked were used at Trinity. Frank Kacmarcik served as the liturgical consultant at Saint Leo’s. Willet Studios of Philadelphia designed the leaded-glass installations at Saint Leo’s. Textile installations were included at Trinity, designed by Sövik. Attractive designs were used throughout the two spaces. Beauty was underscored in the careful selection and design of natural materials (such as oak, brick, granite, bronze, and tile) and ample directed natural light through clear and colored glass.

A Legacy of Houses for Worship

Sövik continued to use the principles of his “non-church” approach to liturgical design until his retirement. Each design was a collaboration between his vision and the needs and preferences of a local congregation. He enjoyed sharing his understandings across denominational lines and was a frequent speaker at conferences and workshops examining liturgical renewal through architecture. Sövik worked with integrity on hundreds of church-related projects for Protestant and Roman Catholic communities for 45 years. He developed an approach to church building that was consistent with the influences, priorities, and values of theologians, liturgists, and architects of the mid-20th century. With eloquence in written and oral forms across Christian denominations, he served as a persuasive catalyst for constructing churches as a “house for the people of God” in order that God might be actively engaged and glorified.

The author teaches in the areas of theology, worship, and architecture at Judson University, Elgin, Illinois, and is preparing a monograph on the church design work of Edward Anders Sövik. An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today (2007) and Greening Spaces for Worship and Ministry: Congregations, Their Buildings, and Creation Care</i (2012) are among his publications.