Moore’s Church Full of Mystery, Spiritual Repose


Behind plain stucco walls, the Church of the Nativity in Fairbanks Ranch takes complex and unpredictable forms that hint at the frustrations and elations of man’s spiritual quest.

In this church designed by internationally renowned architect Charles Moore, light mysteriously washes the back wall behind the altar, admitted by a hidden vertical window. A layered ceiling makes you search for meaning in its infinite combinations of forms and light. Next to a 63-foot bell tower visible from miles away, an asymmetrical parapet wall rises above the church, with a cross framed in a cut-out at one end. The open space surrounding the cross gives an ethereal backlighting effect.

Moore first gained wide acclaim for the rustic condominiums he designed in the 1960s at Sea Ranch, along the California coast north of San Francisco. He is also well-known for his Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, a public plaza with colliding geometric forms and pools of water.


He designed the Fairbanks Ranch church with help from his associates, mainly partner John Ruble and project designer Renzo Zecchetto, at the Los Angeles firm Moore Ruble Yudell. The Austin Hansen Group of San Diego collaborated in the design effort, led by Randy Robbins. Austin Hansen did the working drawings, arranged for local building permits and was responsible for much of the landscape design.

Before the church was christened a year ago, Rancho Santa Fe’s Catholic parish held services for four years in a meeting room at Whispering Palms Country Club.

“We went from the ridiculous to the sublime in one easy jump,” joked Msgr. Dennis Clark, the parish’s founding pastor. It was Clark who hired Moore and company to design this masterful work of architecture, its furniture and even new, contemporary vestments--the robes the monsignor wears for services.

Clark came to Rancho Santa Fe five years ago to found a new parish. His upscale congregation rapidly raised more than half of the building’s $3.4 million construction cost. (The balance was loaned by the local Catholic diocese.)

Initially, Clark tried to choose an architect from a list approved by the diocese.

“But I didn’t see any of distinction, and I said, ‘Let’s see if we can find someone who can do something special. Let’s make this different than anything in people’s lives--their country clubs, hotels, homes.’ I wanted a place of repose and transcendance, where people can listen to their inner spirits.”

More than many big-name, out-of-town architects who have designed buildings in San Diego, Moore has paid homage to the heritage of Southern California. His Oceanside Civic Center, completed earlier this year, looks directly to Irving Gill, San Diego’s best-known architect, while the Fairbanks church taps the powerful, austere beauty of the California missions--filtered through Moore’s complex and quirky sensibilities.

Two church buildings are grouped around an austere central courtyard paved in slate and concrete and simply landscaped with palms, bronze flax and a stand of orange trees set in raked gravel. Gregorian chants often waft through this peaceful outdoor space from a CD player Clark keeps in a closet.

One building contains the 500-seat church, a smaller chapel and the Commons--a large room for social events. The other includes church offices and Clark’s compact, tastefully furnished apartment. He is probably the only monsignor in the nation living in a home designed by Moore.

Ultra-smooth stucco walls, deep openings for doors and windows, tile roofs, citrus and palm trees, courtyards with fountains--these are all mission elements adapted by Moore and his associates for contemporary purposes. But the design is much more than Mission Revival. It modifies mission roots with a typically Moore-like layering of forms and ideas.

Mission churches adhered to simple cross floor plans drawn from ancient Greek and Roman temples. The Fairbanks church opts for a more complicated layout.

Although the overall placement of buildings on the site adheres to a pattern of squares and rectangles, some walls fracture this system.

The narthex, or main entry space, is turned at 45 degrees from the other buildings. A “sacred wall” cuts behind the altars of the church and chapel at an odd angle, taking on special significance.

Beneath the white-beamed underside of the church’s roof, a second, semi-transparent ceiling of Douglas fir closes in on the congregation, giving a cozy intimacy to the space.

The main aisle cuts through the church at a diagonal, a pleasing break from the layout of most churches, where it often runs right up the center of a rectangular room.

Pews are arranged in an angular semi-circle around the pulpit, which is thrust into their midst.

Close to his listeners, yet elevated above them and looking out over orderly rows of pews that ascend from front to back, Clark said he gets a sense of energy and power that inspires him during the three sermons he delivers each week.

Almost every item within the complex was designed by Moore Ruble Yudell, including a confessional screen, the furniture and the custom maple pews. In Mexico City, Moore purchased the 17th-Century wood corpus--the body of Christ--that rests on a cross of Moore’s design at the front of the church.

Seldom has a building enjoyed such attention to detail. The smooth-troweled exterior stucco cuts crisp accent lines around doors and windows. San Diego craftsman Peter Matsen handled most of the custom woodwork, including furniture, a rich, second ceiling and 12-foot-high teak entry doors, which alone cost $15,000.

Hemet artist Max DeMoss designed the 14 stations of the cross mounted on pedestals within the open-air ambulatory connecting the church and small chapel. These are bronze, three-dimensional vignettes depicting the last hours of Christ.

At the heart of the narthex, a concrete-and-bronze baptismal font serves as a symbol of new life. Behind it, a tall bank of windows admits natural light to a “bay of the angels,” a place where deceased parishioners are brought to rest while their friends and relatives pay final respects.

This striking new church complex, with its rich forms and exquisite detailing, provokes a full range of emotions.