City Bible Church, Portland (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Apparently it's possible to live in Portland for decades and still, from time to time, stumble upon arresting, large scale architecture that makes you go, "Wow!" Of course, that which stands out does not always do so because of sheer beauty. But after a bad and unintentionally blasphemous first impression ("What the hell is that?), I can see some value in the concrete domes of City Bible Church. Bless them for keeping Portland weird.
Last week I'd decided to drive up to Rocky Butte to take a few pictures. You can see most of the Cascade peaks from there, as well as the city skyline, the Columbia and the Willamette. The panoramic view didn't disappoint, even as clouds covered the potential postcard-like setting around Mt. Hood.
Driving down the curved road encircling Rocky Butte, I was surprised to suddenly happen upon two giant concrete domes nearly the size of football stadiums. With a passenger in the car eager for a restroom, we decided to explore these mammoth cement bubbles at closer range.
Standing outside in the parking lot of what I learned to be City Bible Church, I was astonished at what, at least in my biased view, seemed to be the ugliest set of buildings I'd seen in ages. The concrete domes are completely windowless. Glass-walled entrances had been built onto the edges of each dome, and multi-story in height to add a substantial presence. But the glass was highly reflective, like some banal 1980s office building. The entire architectural enterprise seemed to be screaming, "KEEP OUT!"
City Bible Church (photo by Brian Libby)
What was this place and how did it come about? My first guess was that the church had purchased some pre-existing piece of Cold War infrastructure: some kind of satellite monitoring station, for example, or another industrial or military need for secrecy. Maybe there was some giant computer that took up the whole dome in the 1960s or '70s but could be the size of a laptop today.
As it happens, though, City Bible Church built the domes themselves, in 1991.
"We bought the property in 1981 and, as a church, you're not getting a big loan," explained pastor Robert Jamison in a phone interview. "Interest rates were 20 percent at the time. The domes themselves, the exterior construction is very inexpensive. Latex is inflated with air and tied rebar to the foam and sprayed concrete. Most everything was done with volunteers. Basically it was an inexpensive way to get a big piece of square footage."
"That 1980s glass, that was kind of what people did back then," he added.
The two-story dome is 230 feet in diameter and 75 feet high, enough space for a sanctuary with seating for 3000, centered about a platform with seating for another 200. “That platform is probably bigger than many whole churches,” Johansen says. “Behind it, we have a choir room, orchestra room, bathrooms and a recording studio.” A large drape partitions the platform so two events can go on simultaneously, or the platform’s back portion can be closed off and only the front used.
In addition to the sanctuary, City Bible Church’s two-story, larger dome houses a K-12 school, nurseries and offices. The smaller dome, also two stories, includes a gym, a commercial kitchen, additional classrooms and a library. On its thirty-three-acre campus, City Bible Church also maintains facilities for its Portland Bible College.
As I moved inside, it was possible to see what a generous amount of space there really was. There were theatrical spaces, a small expresso bar, and wide-open swaths of space that probably befit a large congregation such as this. And sure enough, when I talked to pastor Robert Jamison of City Bible Church, who had been present for the construction in 1991, getting maximum square footage for minimal budget without sacrificing energy efficiency was the reason for the unusual domed architecture.
"We’re on the Columbia River gorge, on a butte,” explained administrator Art Johansen in a 2000 article about the domes. “The east wind combines with ocean weather, so we do get ice storms – but they don’t affect the domes. In the summer we average in the upper eighties, usually with about a week of hundred-degree temperatures. Our winters are very wet and overcast. Heating is not much of an issue, unless we get temperatures below freezing with strong winds. We use air conditioning the majority of the time.”
Domes have a curious architectural history. Buckminster Fuller popularized the geodesic dome, with its utopian sense of organic space. In the 1970s, domed stadiums became commonplace as homes for sports teams and big concerts, from Houston's Astrodome to successors in New Orleans, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Detroit, Seattle and elsewhere. They are impressive for sheer volume, as well as for how they evoke a very simple idea we rarely think about: most all the buildings in the world are square and rectangular. To see a dome is, for all its concrete, to get the subtlest sense of a more organic architecture that mimics the curve of a hillside or the oval of the sun or moon. Plus, there's now a whole genre of videos documenting their demolition, like this one of Seattle's King Dome going down in 2000:
Buildings of vast windowless concrete are far from inviting. Most concrete domes of yesteryear have been demolished, usually in dramatic, TNT-fueled implosions. Yet precisely for that reason, it's not so bad to have an architectural example of this era.
What's more, despite the "keep Portland weird" mantra and our identity in the popular culture as a haven for goofy, earnest enthusiasts, we don't have much strange architecture. Sure, there's the occasional Paul Bunyon statue here or an old bar shaped like a jug there, but these domes stand out, both literally and figuratively. Pastor Jamison says people often see the domes from airplane flights coming in and out of PDX.
"There’s an instant recognition of the domes, but many people don’t know what we are. A laboratory? An airport facility? What? So they come in and find out," Johansen added.
City Bible Church (photos by Brian Libby)
There is a larger issue to be derived from City Bible's architecture. In the past, ecclesiastical design was about inspiring people through beautiful structures to feel a connection to God. Windows, therefore, were crucially important, be they colorful stained glass in traditional churches or the more transparent, expansive arrays of glass in modern projects like Phillip Johnson's circa-1980 Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California.
Increasingly, though, it's multimedia that has become more the vehicle by which worshipers feel that connection. For example, as big as City Bible Church's Rocky Butte campus is underneath the domes, this is just one of three sites the institution has, and wherever pastor Frank Damazio is speaking on a particular Sunday, people at the other two campuses watch him live via video simulcast.
"Technology has allowed all of these services to experience live worship and church life together, while allowing Pastor Frank to minister from any of the locations, and be viewed live on the other campuses," the City Bible website explains." Pastor Frank alternates between each campus on a weekly basis. If he’s preaching live at the Rocky Butte campus, he will be live on the big screen at the 217, Mill Plain and Pearl campuses."
In the end, these domes are not aesthetic wonders - and that's putting it kindly. But maybe the City Bible Church transcends my or others' notions of ugliness: as quintessentially weird Portland architecture that enlivens the collective urban fabric more than another, even far better looking glass box. And if these domes are successful in aiding occupants' desire for spiritual esctasy, who are we to judge? After all, given that Autzen Stadium is my designated church, I can cast no stones.