Creation Story

Creation Story

“Religion and architecture are pretty similar,” Duo Dickinson says, wearing a herringbone sport coat and a smile that reaches its widest point with ease. “They can have bad outcomes with really wonderful intentions.” 

Dickinson’s been designing, building and renovating for over 35 years and a member of Trinity Church on the Green for 22. Despite good intentions, Dickinson sees both traditional architecture and traditional religion aspiring to infeasible places. Architecture’s problem, he thinks, is that budgetary constraints and utility needs are increasingly incompatible with aesthetic visions. Religion’s problem is that contemporary understandings and practicalities don’t jibe with dated metaphysical and moral doctrines.

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Dickinson grew up in an Episcopalian household, but as he progressed through his schooling, religion fell by the wayside and architecture took hold. He received his Bachelor’s from Cornell University and since then has built or renovated over 500 homes and worked on projects for over 40 non-profits. But while he’s designed a career firmly rooted in physics and geometry, he’s also found room for the non-corporeal.

“When I found the right girl and we decided to get married,” Dickinson recalls, “she surprised me because she was also a cradle Episcopalian.” For a church, they decided on Grace Church in Manhattan, which fit their shared religious background and Dickinson’s taste in architecture, which is easier said than done. It had been years since either had attended church, but the couple was convinced by Grace’s dynamic then-curate, Paul Zahl, to give religion another go. Dickinson was persuaded, he recalls, not with appeals to heaven or hellfire but rather Zahl’s commitment to self-critique.

“[Zahl] really understood the fact that there are so many limitations in religion. … As science and knowledge and medicine demystify all the things that make people believe in God out of fear, the ability to believe in God out of hope is not enhanced. It’s pretty hard to believe in God when your belly is full, when you know that cancer isn’t caused by the devil and [when] poverty, injustice and death happens all around you for no reason of sin at all.” But something is lost when we exclude God from our lives, Dickinson thinks.

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The charitable streak found in many Christian sects finds a tangible parallel in Dickinson’s professional work. One third of all the work done by Dickinson’s Madison-based firm, named “Duo Dickinson, architect,” is pro bono. He’s built several affordable houses for the New Haven affiliate of Habitat for Humanity and waived fees for work on various churches, many of whom don’t have the money to pay for a bonafide architect.

For Trinity, he’s worked on the undercroft; the interior-lit stained glass window above the front entrance; and the handicap-accessible side entry. For St. John’s Episcopal on Humphrey Street, Dickinson helped install a handicap-friendly bathroom, elevator and graded entrance ramp.

That’s not the only sort of accessibility on Dickinson’s mind, or in the minds of many church leaders. “New England is at the forefront of secularization,” Dickinson says. “Old-line protestant denominations are losing traction and relevance.” He says he’s seen the number of Episcopal churches in New Haven go from 14 to eight. Of those that remain, he says, “several are struggling mightily.”

The offices of Connecticut’s statewide Episcopal diocese have, with Dickinson’s help, tried to become more relevant. In 2014, Ian Douglas, the diocese’s Bishop Diocesan—so, its top dog—moved the offices from an ostentatious mansion in Hartford to a humbler former ball bearing factory in Meriden, which Dickinson designed pro bono and then implemented on commission.

He’s able to sustain a heavy pro bono bent by using a “Robin Hood”-style business model. His practice, primarily residence-focused, serves clients from the very rich to the very poor, generating enough money on expensive projects to float the costs of the pro bono work. Because of this, Dickinson isn’t able to pay his employees as well as a typical for-profit firm. But, as partial compensation, Dickinson affords his employees very flexible hours and time off when they need it, something he says is especially attractive for people with young families or those with outside interests.

As with religion, Dickinson thinks a reevaluation is in order. “Architects learn in school to be artists first, technologists second and then, lastly, social workers,” Dickinson says. “Money isn’t attached to any projects, ever.” As a result, he feels, architects-in-the-making aren’t well-exposed to the practical limitations and social considerations they’ll later encounter in the marketplace.

In his own work, Dickinson strives for stable, efficient, low-maintenance buildings that also have unique, unexpected flair. The rooftop apexes of a low-income housing complex in Yonkers, New York, are embellished with diamond-shaped frames like keystones. A seaside home in Greenwich, CT, has patios and stairs like seashells, rippling outward in arcs. In Madison, CT, Dickinson’s own home stands on supports overlooking a marsh like Baba Yaga’s hut on hen’s legs.

Despite the artistry he puts into his work, and despite the thought he puts into his spirituality, Dickinson’s ultimately a pragmatist on both fronts. When architects are guided by the real needs of occupants, and when temples are dedicated to the real needs of their parishioners, he thinks, houses worthy of worship can arise.

Duo Dickinson, architect
94 Bradley Rd, Madison (map)
Mon-Fri 9am-5pm
(203) 245-0405

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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