The Visionary State

The Visionary State

By Aaron Britt
I was down visiting some friends in Santa Cruz, California, a couple weekends back, and one of my hosts--a friend working on his dissertation on Californian Utopianism in literature who knows of and possibly shares my burning fascination with Theosophy--showed me a copy of writer Erik Davis's and photographer Michael Rauner's 2006 book The Visionary State: A Journey Through California's Spiritual Landscape. I was transfixed.

Now, before you think that I'm some gauzy chump, turning increasingly narrow circles in the shimmering occult-de-sac which passes for free-thinking religion around here (my Northern California childhood and past three years in San Francisco have convinced me that crystals, singing bowls and the Goddess are hokum of the flimsiest kind), let me state that what I like most about the Theosophists--turn of the 20th-century proto-New Agers led by the indomitable Madame Blavatsky--is their blatant hucksterism, ceaseless mystical invention and sheer megalomania. If you like that winning trio cut with the occasional seance, you must read Peter Washington's excellent book Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America. Other occult favorites include anthything to do with Rudolf Steiner's theories of Anthroposophy and mystic Russian composer Alexander Scriabin's unperformed work the "Mysterium"--a polysensual festival he started sketching out in 1909 to be put on in the at the base of the Himalayas and meant to bring about the end of the world. But I digress.

What got me excited about this book, which features scads of Californian houses of the holy from Swami's self-actualization centers to Zen cabins in Druid Heights, was seeing a fine photo of a rather less daffy building on the UC Berkeley campus: Albert Schweinfurth's First Unitarian Church. Drew Himmelstein just wrote a very fine essay for the November 2009 issue of the magazine on how and why the Unitarian-Universalists have embraced cutting-edge architecture for the last 150 years, and seeing Schweinfurth's deeply organic brand of modernism avant la lettre struck me as essentially numinous, essentially Californian and remarkably beautiful. I was already a Schweinfurth fan thanks to his amazing Church of the New Jerusalem, a Swedenborgian Church here in San Francisco, and that his avant-garde architectural style should also nibble at the fringes of left-field American religious life is only natural.

Though The Visionary State is not concerned with modern architecture per se, there are still a handful of buildings in it that have fallen under our purview here at Dwell. I've penned a Detour on San Diego, California for the February 2010 issue and both the splendidly spare First Church of Christ, Scientist by Irving Gill and the neo-Narnian San Diego Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, are included.

So though I cannot recommend this book as some primer on California modernism, I can recommend it as a well-made and I-didn't-even-know-I-needed-this tome on the confluence of Californian building and spirituality. I love that this book really challenges the going orthodoxy that modern design and the International style were the only versions of the vanguard of 20th century design. Though I may not call it great architecture, isn't there something deeply avant-gard about slapping onion domes on a San Francisco Victorian to make it feel like some Gurdjieffian sanctuary, or erecting a meandering garden and Californio-Japanese monastery in the hilly wilderness? I'm not suggesting we take Ram Dass as our aesthetic guide (I saw that dude at a New Age fair in my hometown of Auburn, California and I'm not sure anybody should be following him) but certainly absorbing the spiritualists into the wider narrative of Californian design, though way cool, is hardly far out.

The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley designed by Albert Schweinfurth is now on the UC Berkeley campus and houses the UC Dance Studio.

Read the really great, and long, interview with Davis done by Dwell editor emeritus Geoff Manaugh at the perpetually psyched-out BLDGBlog.

Schweinfurth's Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco is lit naturally and by candles.


The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley, California was designed by Bernard Maybeck and, as Davis puts it: "was one of America's most magnificent houses of worship, an organic modern expression of medieval religious romance that resembles nothing so much as a Rohirrim temple hall from the set of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings."


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