Unity Temple Constructed

Unity Temple is a Unitarian Universalist church in Oak Park, Illinois, and the home of the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

It was designed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and built between 1905 and 1908. Unity Temple is considered to be one of Wright's most important structures dating from the first decade of the twentieth century. Because of its consolidation of aesthetic intent and structure through use of a single material, reinforced concrete, Unity Temple is considered by many architects to be the first modern building in the world. This idea became of central importance to the modern architects who followed Wright, such as Mies Van Der Rohe, and even the post-modernists, such as Frank Gehry.

In 1905, after the original Unity Church burned down, the Universalist congregation of Oak Park, Illinois turned to architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design them a new structure. The result was Unity Temple. Wright was not only living in Oak Park, but was a Unitarian - which faith then had many beliefs in common with Universalism. The congregation needed a space of worship, as well as a community room. There were several immediate problems that the architect had to work with in order to satisfy the client. The budget for the Universalist congregation was rather small for its needs: $40,000 US dollars; and the proposed building site was long, but not very wide. Additionally, the building site stood on a busy street. And finally, the architect was expected to design not only the structure, but furniture and stained glass for the building. Charles E. Roberts, an engineer, inventor and an important early client of Frank Lloyd Wright, served on the church's building committee and was a key figure in seeing that Wright's vision for the church became a reality. For Roberts, Wright also remodeled Roberts' home and the Charles E. Roberts Stable.

To accommodate the needs of the congregation, Wright divided the community space from the temple space through a low, middle loggia that could be approached from either side. This was an efficient use of space and kept down on noise between the two main gathering areas: those coming for religious services would be separated via the loggia from those coming for community events. This design was one of Wright's first uses of a bipartite design: with two portions of the building similar in composition and separated by a lower passageway, and one section being larger than the other. The Guggenheim Museum in New York City is another bipartite design.

To reduce construction costs, Wright chose steel-reinforced concrete as the main building material for Unity Temple. In fact, Unity Temple is sometimes claimed to be the first building in the world built from reinforced concrete poured on the site; that is, wooden forms were built on site, and concrete was poured into them in order to create the walls. However, this is not a fact; a site-cast, steel-reinforced skyscraper was built in Cincinnati as early as 1903, and a site-cast concrete house was built in New York State even earlier than that.

To reduce noise from the street, Wright eliminated street level windows in the temple. Instead, natural light comes from stained glass windows in the roof, or clerestories along the upper walls. Because the members of the parish would not be able to look outside, Unity Temple's stained glass was designed with green, yellow, and brown tones in order to evoke the colors of nature. The main floor of the temple is accessed via a lower floor (which has seating space), and the room also has two balconies for the seating of the congregation. These varying seating levels allowed the architect to design a building to fit the size of the congregation, but efficiently: no one person in the congregation is more than 40 feet from the pulpit. Wright also designed the building with very good acoustics.

The design of Unity Temple represents a leap forward in design for Wright. In recounting his experiences with Unity Temple, he stated that this design was the first time he ever realized that the real heart of a building is its space, not its walls. Indeed, architectural historians have commented on Wright's genius in creating and manipulating space in his designs; in his book The Master Builders, Peter Blake entitled the section on Wright "The Mastery of Space."

The building was completed in 1908 and officially dedicated on September 26, 1909. The original Universalist (now Unitarian Universalist) congregation still owns and uses Unity Temple, although a separate and secular organization, the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, is in charge of the building's multi-million dollar restoration effort. Chicago restoration architect Gunny Harboe is in charge of the restoration. In April 2009, Unity Temple, due to water seepage, was added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 11 most endangered historic places.

In 1905, while Wright was building the Larkin Building, he received the commission to rebuild Oak Park’s Unitarian church, which was destroyed that year by fire during a storm. Wright was a member of the congregation, and developed the design in tandem with the congregation and its minister. To a certain degree, Unity Temple represents an extension of the theme Wright began at the Larkin Building—a top-lit interior space surrounded by galleries or balconies—and one that he would use repeatedly throughout his career, notably in the Guggenheim Museum and the S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc. Administration Building.In all three building, the luminous experience of the interior is magnified by its contrast with the exterior’s visual weight.

In 1901 he claimed (in contrast to many Arts and Crafts reformers) that machine-made products could be used intelligently and beautifully. Yet the processes of industrialization and rapid urbanization distressed him for the most part, and his urban buildings are thus turned inward, protected from the city by thick masonry walls. Where windows are provided, they are frequently inoperable, and are often placed to admit light without allowing views into the structure.