The transatlantic accomplishment proclaimed in the title of Vincent Michael’s The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Taking the Prairie School to Europe concerns the commission of the Church of Christ the King in Ireland, the only European structure designed by a Prairie School architect.
Given a start in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Office, Byrne struck out on a career that began with relatively conventional Prairie School efforts, angled through high modernism, and then settled on a string of innovative commissions in ecclesiastical architecture that stand outside of easy characterization in either category.
Born in a lower middle class Irish Catholic family, Byrne developed an early enthusiasm for architecture. His enthusiasm secured him an early office boy spot in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park headquarters, where William Drummond and Walter Burley Griffin served as his effective drawing instructors. Soon he was preparing drawings and supervising construction for several of the great architect’s commissions. After leaving Wright’s office, Byrne bounced about between Seattle and Los Angeles designing several prairie-styled homes as well as a stark modernist chemistry building for the University of New Mexico before returning to Chicago to embark on the field of his greatest consequence—church architecture.
American church design had historically proven a realm of hidebound conservatism. Byrne embarked upon pioneering efforts to imagine what else a sanctuary might be. At Chicago’s Hyde Park St. Thomas the Apostle, for example, he pushed the altar into the nave, insisting upon proximity, while abandoning columns—in the very year that Auguste Perret did the same with Notre Dame du Raincy in Paris. As he wrote:
“All vital historic architectures have been developed around practical and current systems of roofing spaces. The approach in all cases was practical and not sentimental. The architectural forms—columns in columnar architecture and arches in vaulted architecture—were resultants; not conceived initially as artistic forms, but as practical ones that the architect made beautiful.”
On the exterior, Byrne forsook the domineering horizontal orientation of late-stage Prairie architecture for a series of terra-cotta–covered brick serrated piers topped by finials.
The archbishop of Chicago did not care for Byrne’s radical accomplishment, so the architect embarked upon work elsewhere. In churches across the Midwest, he broke the tyranny of the basilica, casting sanctuaries in square, polygonal, and diamond forms, forsaking traditional bell towers and sacred ornament in favor of a range of chevron piers of increasing material frankness. As Michael elegantly describes the spires of Christ the King in Tulsa, “It is as if all the buttresses and pinnacles of a Gothic church ran around to the front of the building and made a gymnastic pyramid.”
Christ the King in Cork, which Byrne described as his “best building,” abandons serrated ornaments in favor of a serrated mass in an aggressive rise of concrete terraces to a bell tower. The near-oval interior abandons traditional nave illuminations for light almost exclusively from the front and rear—as well as a skylight. It’s a culmination of Byrne’s quest for bold conceptual rearrangement while retaining the form of the church.
Byrne’s career suffered with the great depression, and didn’t quite recover until after World War II. This period happily saw a series of bold new works, often reflecting a comfort with the once-spurned steeple. One is Saint Francis Xavier Church in Kansas City, a propulsive ellipse that focuses attention irresistibly on the forward bell tower in the exterior and on the altar inside.
Byrne’s innovative attention to sacred architecture receives lively exposition in Michael’s volume. The architect’s experiments, which lead him far from the prairie style, did not quite propel him to standard modernism. Despite his friendship with Mies and Mendelsohn, his discomfort with their emerging style was repeatedly palpable. Byrne’s quest for structural “honesty,” with the test to “temporarily eliminate obvious and identifiable symbols like the cross, and then to judge whether the design is religious in character,” is a model for any sort of building, however, and, given the results, all the more justification for continued study.