Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mr. Church

Carlton Hills Lutheran Church
The Carlton Hills Lutheran Church in Santee, California was Des Laurier's first major commission after forming his own office. The church won an AIA National Award of Merit in 1959 for its innovative design, and numerous other designs for churches soon followed. The church features a graceful, sweeping hyperbolic paraboloid roof that would become a common characteristic for his designs, as well as concrete walls with cutouts for stained glass, inspired by Le Corbusier's design for Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France.
Photo ©Darren Bradley. 
Architect Robert E. Des Lauriers was one of San Diego's leading architects in the post-war period from the late 1950s through the 70s. While Des Lauriers designed many houses, commercial offices, and other buildings throughout San Diego, he developed a reputation for his designs of places of worship for all denominations, and become known as "Mr. Church." 

Calvary Baptist Church
The Calvary Baptist Church in Linda Vista (San Diego) was built in 1963. Photo @Darren Bradley

Calvary Baptist Church
Detail of the Calvary Baptist Church (1963). 

Like many of his peers of the time period, Bob had a colorful history that began with his participation in WWII. After a childhood spent in Los Angeles, Bob's father moved the family to Honolulu, Hawaii for work as an engineer and defense contractor. The family arrived just two months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 18-year old Bob slept through the whole attack (typical teenager)...  

View of Waikiki Beach in 1941, about the time that the Des Lauriers family arrived on this island paradise. Photo: NPSAM. 

Bob soon joined the Army Air Corps and graduated as a 2nd Lt. pilot in 1944. He flew 33 missions as a B-17 bomber pilot over Germany before the war ended. His timing was good because survival rates were dismal for pilots flying in 1942-43, before long-range fighter escorts were used. By 1944, their odds had improved somewhat.  

2nd Lt. Bob Des Lauriers in the cockpit of his B-17 in England during World War II. 

Des Lauriers had his office at the foot of Mt. Helix in east San Diego County, in a commercial complex that still exists today. 

deslauriers office 1
Former offices of Robert E. Des Lauriers, AIA. Photo ©Darren Bradley

deslauriers office 2
Restaurant in part of the commercial complex designed by Des Lauriers on Fuerte Drive in Mt. Helix (La Mesa), which also housed his architecture studio. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I really love all of the Des Lauriers' work. He's one of my favorite San Diego architects. But what really stands out are his designs for churches. As I've mentioned before, there was a brief period of time in the 1950s and 60s when places of worship of all denominations wanted to show how progressive they were, and were trying to outdo each other with their innovative modernist designs. They were truly imaginative, while still being dignified. It's a shame that most churches today have now retrenched into an ultra-conservative approach to design, but that's a topic for another day. 

Clairemont Lutheran Church
Clairemont Lutheran Church in San Diego (1966). Photo ©Darren Bradley

Clairemont Lutheran Church
Interior of the Clairemont Lutheran Church. Not the asymmetry of the design and the creative use of stained glass, which were hallmarks of many modernist churches. Photo ©Darren Bradley

One of the remarkable features of these churches is that the interiors are always as dramatic as the exteriors, and often contain surprises. They are meant to be awe-inspiring and they accomplish this nicely. 

des lauriers church interior
Interior of the First Lutheran Church on Foothill in El Cajon (1962). Photo ©Darren Bradley

Vintage interior view of the Carlton Hills Lutheran Church in Santee, CA. Photographer unknown. Note the cutouts with stained glass similar to Le Corbusier's designs. 

Des Lauriers understood how to infuse drama into his designs, which was particularly well suited for religious architecture. He served as a member of the Council of Religious Architects (No, I didn't realize there was such a thing, either). 

Calvary Lutheran Church
Calvary Lutheran Church in the Vista Colina area of east San Diego. Note the use of a hyperbolic paraboloid. The obelisk thing on the left was once a much taller and tapered spire reaching to the heavens. Not sure what happened to it. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Bob was also President of the San Diego Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1961, just three years after starting his own practice. 
First Lutheran Church in El Cajon on South Lincoln. Photo courtesy of

Rendering of the First Presbyterian Church on Hilltop Drive in Chula Vista. Courtesy of 

Unfortunately, the nearly universal reaction I get from parishioners and church leaders when visiting this buildings to photograph them is incomprehension. There seems to be very little appreciation for these modernist designs, and most people don't seem to see what's so special or beautiful about them. They generally wish they could have something "more traditional". They also frequently complain about the high cost of maintaining these older buildings, and their lack of efficiency for heating and cooling. 

Fletcher Hills Presbyterian Church
Fletcher Hills Presbyterian Church (1968), which to me has a bit of a Tiki vibe. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Still, most are remarkably well preserved. I only hope that they are maintained long enough for the pendulum to swing back and for people to start to appreciate them for their beautiful and unique designs. 

Carlsbad Community Church
This design is very similar to the St. Michael and All Episcopal Church in Coldwater Canyon in Los Angeles, designed by A. Quincy Jones. But it's attributed to Robert Des Lauriers (1966). Photo ©Darren Bradley 

I had the opportunity to meet Robert Des Lauriers a few times. He was always very happy and friendly, and willing to share stories about his work and life. He passed away peacefully on November 5th, 2013. 

For more information about Robert Des Lauriers, please refer to my friend Keith York's website, 


LaughingLady said...

I stumbled across your Instagram feed a few days ago (not sure how, exactly) and instantly came to check out your blog. I have loved not only your photography, but the biographical summaries you include.

I had plans at one point in my life to become an architect, but gave up without realizing that drafting was really what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, that discovery was made after many other life choices had been made, making it something I'm unlikely to pursue at this point in life. BUT, I have also realized, with the help of your blog, that my appreciation for architecture and its champions has never diminished. Thank you for that! I look forward to spending more time here.

J. Hogan said...

The obelisk thing at Calvary Baptist was somewhat recently constructed to conceal, you guessed it, cellular antennas.