COOKSON STREET, CAMBERWELL
The Christian Science church in Camberwell is one of Melbourne’s best examples of 1930s Modernism. But its once flourishing denomination is declining.
In its country of origin, the United States, once a seemingly inexhaustible fount of new variations on the Christian theme, Christian Science was founded in 1879 as Mrs Mary Baker Eddy of Boston’s interpretation of the New Testament. Her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures had sold over nine million copies by 2001 and Christian Science was widely followed as a “rational” faith and attracted many high-profile adherents.
In 1906 Christian Science built a vast domed mother church – the First Church of Christ, Scientist – in Boston, and throughout the twentieth century as membership grew around the world, imposing churches were built in many cities. Melbourne was no exception, with at least five, the central (or First) church, a Classical edifice in St Kilda Road somewhat reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome, opened in 1922 to the design of architect Harold Dumsday of the firm Bates, Peebles and Smart.
Christian Science has declined steeply in membership from its heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s and has already disposed of one of its grander Melbourne churches (its Third), a soaring dark brick exercise in modernised Italian Romanesque with campanile, in Elsternwick designed by architects Cockerell and Louis R. Williams (in a rare non-Anglican commission). Its long-term future seems doubtful; it is currently used by Buddhists.
It is the denomination’s Second Church in Melbourne, in Cookson Street, Camberwell, that could now be at risk from a further decline in Christian Science membership. This is a building of great originality in what might be termed the Moderne-Classical style, opened in 1937 to a design by the Bates, Smart and McCutcheon partnership, as the architects of the St Kilda Road church were by then called, a firm still functioning today. Their design won a Royal Institute of Victorian Architects award in 1938 and was influential in the development of European- and American-influenced Modernist architecture in Australia and a pioneer of Modernism in the field of church-building.
The church is built in the cream brick favoured at the time, distinctly pointed. It consists of four overlapping cuboids of banded brick that form a tall entrance front and a taller central worship space rising behind it, all with patterned brick cornices. Single-storey Sunday School, reading room and offices flank the main block. The monumental façade is pierced by three portals that emphasise the building’s verticality; inset above each is an elongated octagonal lozenge filled with a non-figurative geometric design. The beautiful wrought-iron doors are of intricate Moderne design. Inside, the auditorium has a louvred ceiling and a vertically chain-patterned screen behind the rostrum where a reredos would stand in a conventional church. This is a building of exemplary quality of conception and detail.