Sunday, March 1, 2015

Energetic Lighting

I've said it before and I will say it of the best ways churches can up the design quality of their space is by modernizing the lighting.  Witness the energy that a contemporary light fixture brings to the stairwell of the Montmagny courthouse in Quebec--many churches have similar spaces that need to be enlivened.  By lumigroup, via v2com, photo by Stephane Groleau.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Church Chair, Kaare Klint, 1936

Few things are hotter in furniture at the moment than Danish modern design.  Its emphasis on purity of form and craftmanship are the legacy of Kaare Klint (1888-1954), an architect and designer who is considered the godfather of the Danish modern aesthetic.   Klint designed two churches (more on them later), but on this Sunday I am thinking of his chairs.

Designed in 1936, Klint's famous 'church chair' drew from the straightforward integrity of American Shaker design, interpreted in Scandinavian materials of beech and a woven paper-twist seat.  Unlike other modernists, Klint honored tradition within his own version of strict functionality, to which he added a rigorous study of human proportions and movement.  He often spent years in research before producing his furniture, and his focus on the relationship of furniture to the human form gave rise to what we now call ergonomics.

So Klint's church chair had no right angles and the slats of the ladder back were individually curved for comfort.  He lowered the psalm book shelf from the middle to the base of the back for better balance. And when used in concert, the chairs were cleverly kept straight by a wooden rod inserted through a leather strap beneath the seats.

Given the truly hideous assemblies of metal and cheap fabric that most churches choose (whose heavy padding btw, is a sign of their poor design; well-balanced chairs don't need padding to be comfortable), it's nice to remember a time when more care and attention was given to the lowly 'church chair'.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

This is how you do a warehouse...learning from Archiproba

As churches increasing adopt warehouse-type spaces for adapative reuse, and also seek to open up traditional spaces for more flexible usage patterns,  I'm struck by the elements of Archiproba's redesign of an early twentieth telecom building in Moscow for a tech company, many of which I'd love to see in church.  None of these ideas are particularly expensive...add a cross at the front of the seating bank (up at the 'holy end'...see the Philip Larkin poem below) and you're there.  Elegant, modern, welcoming, simple.

1.  Glass entryways, embodying the transparency that the church should exhibit, and reducing visual barriers to entering the sacred space.

2.  An open sided sanctuary, which can be acoustically curtained as necessary.

3.  Seating in bright and modern colorways (though please choose more comfortable chairs!)

4.  The creation of a room-within-the-room; perfect for coffee or kids on Sunday morning and a great meeting and gathering space during the week.

[found at dezeen]

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Church-going, Philip Larkin, 1954

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

From the Mailbag, Part I

I've gotten some interesting comments and queries from readers, which I'll be sharing over the next weeks in case they are helpful to someone else as well.   The first was from a small-town Kansas pastor with an expanding congregation, just beginning to think about a new building, and seeking advice on how to make the design match their purpose and goals.  Here's my response:

I'm glad you're thinking about this, because churches are neglecting the potential of church design as an outreach tool. Churches have come to think alot about their screens, but comparatively little about their spaces.

One comparison I made with my own church was to ask them how great they thought it would be if they designed a website that got 18,000 hits a day. They'd be over the moon! But that's how many people a day drive past our new building site. So it's critically important that the building be a constant, speaking reminder of who we are. Way MORE important than a website, actually.

I'd suggest that you start by defining some words that reflect your values. The word definitions are great done at a leadership level, because they are central to the vision of the building. For us it was "light and truth" from Psalms 43:3. Then think about how those words might be 'distilled' into something abstract. For example, most people might try to symbolize light and truth by drawing a picture of a sun and a picture of a Bible. Too literal. Turning light and truth into a building, for us, meant lots of transparent glass, delicate construction members, and authentic materials that didn't pretend to be something else.

That's a key concept for any church I think. It's become popular to talk about authenticity, yet our buildings are anything but. And more modern churches can be the worst offenders, by using shopping mall/theatre/coffee shop spatial language where it's really not appropriate. Because we aren't that. So it always feels weird, like something of a con.

I notice that even people that don't think deeply about spaces like I do notice when something is off, they just can't ascertain why. And one of the things that's off in emergent churches is the lack of any spatial authenticity. We keep telling ourselves it's great, this shopping mall/theatre/coffee shop thing, but in reality it's really not working. In fact, it's often working against us.

So the challenge is interpreting sacred spatial forms and language in new ways that really deeply speak to your church and its mission and how it functions (and that can still include coffee).

But defining it is hard work! It take a lot more thought than getting someone to throw up a metal building with x number of classrooms and a hall that seats x number of people, and that is, I think why many churches don't do it.

You do need a congregational champion. It could be a staff member or a lay person, but it should be someone that you think has some talent in the area of design, who has a good 'eye', and who can communicate well to people that don't think about design at all, or have never been inside a great building in their life. Building a great building will mean moving people beyond their preconceived notions of what a church *should* be, whether that's the older woman who wants red brick and white columns or the young skater that insists that nothing should 'look' like a church. Both biases can thwart a thoughtful process.

Our church spent a full year and a half in the design process. So even if you're thinking about building well into the future, start now! Most people go to an architect or builder way, way too early.  If they haven't developed their own thoughts, they'll inevitably get the architect/builder's thoughts. And that's not a good solution.

The other issue is people in the church don't initially know what they want, or can't enunciate it well. Simple polling, like "how big should the nursery be?" or "should we have a gym?" doesn't help, because people just give pat answers based on what they already know. You have to be very creative about drawing out their needs and desires for a new building. We spent the whole first month looking at church design throughout history, from the early church to the present day. The last week of that series was spent on modern church architecture, to see how the idioms of the sacred are being interpreted in new ways.

Then we started digging in to function (which should beget form, not the other way around). The first week we just talked about our existing space. We ranked the church on the ancient Roman principles of commodity (how well does it accommodate the people/events held there), firmness (how well does it work as a system, this includes things like say, toilets, and AV), and delight (beauty). The congregation scored the existing building really low on 'delight'. Now if I had just come in and asked the "is the aesthetic appeal of a building important to you", they would have said not so much. But working through the questions made it clear that aesthetics were actually really important to them.

In other weeks we made bubble diagrams, cut up and rearranged the existing floor plan, and answered the famous architectural question (as formulated by Louis Kahn) "What does a church want to be?"

All of these were just ways of ascertaining further the congregation's values for the building and the spaces within it. Only after that summer did we go to our architects with a brief for the design.

Defining your own values in advance is what will enable you to choose the right architect. Prior to working with drdh from London (our current firm) we had a failed effort with a local firm that just was unable to design to the 'Light and Truth' idea. But had we not already made our own design definition we may not have realized that they weren't the right firm for us.

And of course even after your architects present you with a design there are many more meetings to examine and refine the plans. It's important to prepare the church to understand that formulating a great design is like a long and complicated conversation. Most people in my congregation didn't know anything beyond ordering a house plan out of a catalog. It was hard to keep them patient with the back and forth, the many adjustments involved in working through a design, particularly an innovative one. But they've been troopers.

So I guess to summarize I would say that designing a church is a process in which you reap what you sow. Make a serious investment of prayer and thoughtfulness and effort into the process, and it will be worth it all. As our congregation's design champion, I spent extensive time studying the scriptures around the construction of the tabernacle and Solomon's temple. I am utterly in awe of the privilege of building the house of God. It deserves the absolute best that any congregation can bring to it. And to do less, I think, is to miss an opportunity to honor our awesome God.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Saint Anna's Chapel, Torre del Lago Italy,Vardemaro Barbetta, 1973, renovated 2013

 And speaking of outdoor church, the lovely 1973 chapel of Saint Anna's, which is more like a garden pavilion, really, has recently been renovated after being closed since 2010 because of structural issues.

The chapel was treated with great sensitivity; its moss-covered roof was retained in order to preserve the structure's age and harmony with the landscape even while old steel fixings were replaced.

Can I say again how much I wished churches would move out into their landscapes with more than parking lots?

This project was initiated by another Anna, Vardemaro Barbetta's mother.  What a beautiful way to honor one's mother.

[via dezeen]

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Hill of Crosses, Šiauliai Lithuania

For Good Friday, Lithuania's Hill of Crosses.
Outdoor Church and Interactive Landscape Art Installation, all in one.

It is thought that the first crosses were placed on this hilltop--the site of an old fort--in about 1831 to remember those soldiers whose bodies were not recovered after the first uprising against the Russians.    More crosses were placed in 1863 after  a second uprising, and by the twentieth century the hill of crosses was firmly established as a place of sacred pilgrimage and national prayer.  When Lithuania was occupied by the Soviets it became a site of peaceful resistance.  The wooden crosses were burned, the metal crosses scrapped, and the hill bulldozed three times under Soviet occupation.  But the crosses continued to reappear in spite of militia and KGB guards.  Today, the site symbolizes the resiliency of faith under oppression.


[images via wikipedia and throughthetorncurtain]

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Quaker Meeting House and Arts Center, Sidwell Friends School, Kieran Timberlake, 2013

In a time when too many churches choose gymnasiums as spaces for worship (what does it say about us that we build places that are first for sport and only second for worship?)  it is refreshing to see a project that transforms a gym away from its noisy recreational focus and makes it a contemplative space.

The Sidwell friends Friends School, a K-12 Quaker school in Washington, D.C. converted an existing 1950s gymnasium that had been used as a makeshift worship space for decades into a permanent worship space, with decisions about space, light, and materials inspired by the Quaker tradition.

"Daylight was used to organize the space. The Meeting House is focused on a central focal point illuminated from above, with targeted views to the gardens and soft filtered light also coming through on all sides. The materials palette was limited to only wood and plaster. In old meeting houses wood is often used in places where it may be touched; after centuries, it retains its integrity and character. In the new Meeting House, oak from long-unused Maryland barns was used to line the lower walls and floor. The exterior, too, is clad with black locust harvested from a single source in New Jersey."

In keeping with Quaker tradition, the pews are arranged in a non-hierarchical, four-square manner; there is no 'front' or 'back' in the gathering of friends.

The project by Kieran Timberlake used 'minimal means' and organized itself around the central symbolism of a skylight providing illumination both literal and physical.

It received an Institute Honor Award for 2014 from the American Institute of Architects.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Minimum Bible, Joseph Novak, 2014

Presbyterian pastor and graphic artist Joseph Novak has distilled the central concepts of each of the 66 books of the Bible into a set of minimalist posters/book covers that he calls the Minimum Bible series.   He views them as a 'diving board' into the text.  His design of concentric circles for the book of Genesis, for example, not only references its role as the book of origins but also the ripple effect created by the introduction of sin.

"At its heart, the story is really this brief image in a reflecting pool of Utopia but by the third chapter, a stone has been tossed into the pond and the ripples of that stone spread throughout the rest of the book.”

Everything returns to its center, though in Revelations.  The Job cover is typographic, striking through the promises to highlight his lament, but most of the posters are pictograms:   'Samuel' references David and Goliath, 'Acts' riffs on the expansion of the early church, we can see the 'road' of Romans, and some of the posters reference key scriptures, like the "In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, bond or free, male or female" of Galatians.

Take the time to peruse the entire set; they're also available for purchase.  Joseph hopes the project will also create an increased design awareness among in the Christian community.  I do too.

(First found at; see also previous posts on the Summer Bible, and the Pentagram pocket canons)

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Church that Atheists Like

It has no tower, spire, or bell, but the Norman church of St.Michael's (13th century) of Up Marden in West Sussex draws both believers and unbelievers alike; famously appealing to architectural critics (and atheists) Simon Jenkins and Ian Nairn.

So it's worth considering what this little space--simple white walls, deep set windows, plain stone and tile floors--knows about the power of sacred architecture that contemporary churches don't.

Some of it, I think, is the honesty of its austere materials: local flint and plain whitewash. No flash, no pretense.  Nobody is trying to market to you, or fit you into a target demographic, or introduce you to their brand.  What a relief.

Some of it is the intimacy of human-scaled spaces that seem to resonate in close communion with both God and man.  This isn't a church that wants you to, or lets you, have forty square feet of space to yourself.  Nope, you're going to be close.  Surrounded.

Some of it is its age, or rather its tenure.  The church has lasted in this space for going on 900 years, and there's a definite sense that it, like God himself, isn't going anywhere anytime soon.  It will still be there to comfort (or confront) you.

I'm not sure that all the flash and vast and new of modern church architecture (and here I'm speaking mostly of American church architecture) is taking us where we want to be.   There's something in St. Michael's that makes you put down your iphone.   And something that makes "the unbeliever depart...ill at ease", according to Simon Jenkin's essay on the Downland churches (of which St. Michael's is one) and their effect on both him and Nairn.

"Nairn....was a sceptic and a rebel and loved his beer...yet Up Marden found its way into his soul. I believe he visited it when depressed and nearing his premature death. He declared that it moved him beyond religion. It had an atmosphere developed by 'slow, loving, gentle accretion, century by century'. No carving, no art or architecture could explain its effect. 

These places disturb us unbelievers. Great religious monuments and their builders we can take in our stride. We have the measure of Yorkshire's Cistercian priors, the wool tycoons of East Anglia and the guild princes of London, Norwich and Bristol. They raised their vaults to the glory of their vocation or the salvation of their souls....Their churches were for this world as much as for the next: it is in this world that we appreciate them.

But the Downland churches are different. They weave not neither do they spin, yet there is not a  cathedral in England that has their power to move the spirit. This power does not respect belief or unbelief....I trust Up Marden to have been a place of  refuge. I see its parishioners finding a deep comfort in these walls, the comfort of certainty, a belief in a better life to come."

Being no atheist myself, I would say that there is a greater Presence in the church that drew Nairn and discomfited Jenkins.  But in thinking about St. Michael's as a physical, architectural space, I think its genius is that there is nothing in it to interfere with experiencing the presence of God.  Nothing glares, nothing shouts, nothing puts itself forward to distract the eyes or jar the soul that may be just on the cusp of discovering something greater.

I think we should learn from that.

Read Simon Jenkins' entire column on the Downland Churches here.

[I found out about St. Michael's through a post at the ragpicking blog, which is also the source of the photos in this post]

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Great Design from Cheap Materials - 5

Ever since I saw the newly designed The Wright Restaurant in NYC's Guggenheim Museum I've been thinking about how this idea could be adapted for a church space.

The museum's site-specific artwork, by Liam Gillick, is of high-end custom extruded aluminum.  But it kind of looks like painted 2x4s, doesn't it?  Note how in the first photo you can see that the widths and depths of the pieces vary; as if some are mounted on their side and some on their edge.

Pick your colors, then mock your project up carefully using paper strips of varying widths on graph paper scaled to your wall size.  With a little planning, you too can have a site-specific work brightening up the children's or youth space using more thought than money!

[images by Andre Kikoski Architects]

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Splitting the Church (Building)


Church splits are generally a bad thing. But when St. Mary's Catholic Church, in a quiet rural area near Plantersville Texas, decided that they needed to grow their solution was to cut their beloved painted sanctuary in half, and add a 30 foot extension in the middle.

"The new space, seating about 140 more parishioners will be done in such a way that it will match the wonderful hand painted bead board interior finishes, new windows will match the gothic arched leaded glass windows of the old church and even the rustic pews will be matched down to every detail. It was necessary to study and profile all the existing wood trim and to be faithful to the construction techniques and joinery of the existing interior detailing. A glass connector will join the original historic structure to a new accessible lobby, restroom block and a new reconciliation room." 

They wanted to grow, but first they knew who they were and what they wanted to keep.

What a wise congregation. If you start your church project thinking 'what do we want to change' you've got the order wrong. The first question is always 'what do we want to keep'. If you don't know what you want to keep, you risk losing it while you try to change.

(By ZieglerCooper Architects of Houston, Texas. See many more pictures of the renovation, including sweet parishioners moving furniture and stenciling walls, on the St. Mary's website. The state of Texas has a lovely tradition of painted churches like St. Mary's built by 19th century Czech and German immigrants.)



Friday, July 19, 2013

Painting the Pews

by madeleine z via flickr
via the blog ourswedishfamily

by Marie Louise-Avery via the picture kitchen

by Thomas Larsson via flickr

I mentioned the painted pews of Sweden in the previous post and I keep thinking about's striking how rare painted pews are in the USA, except for the occasional drab white.  There's nothing particularly spiritual about woodtones.

So witness the effect of serene grey, pale blue with yellow, green with orange-red accents, and even turquoise.

Or spend hours perusing the amazing set of Swedish churches on flickr to gather your own inspirations (a trip to Sweden to tour churches is definitely in my future plans, now!)

If you're a small church needing a makeover, a good cabinet-maker can provide a durable finish that will totally change your look for a lower cost than replacing the pews either with new ones or with chairs.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Saint Matthew's Church, Malmo, Sweden

The most beautiful church floor I know is that of Saint Matthew's in Malmo, Sweden.  I'm not that engaged with the rest of the 1983 structure by architect Sten Samuelson , but the interior work--long pale semicircular pews and a font by Swedish glassmaker Kosta--is sublime.

And such care was taken with the attention rarely seen past the days of the medieval encaustic tiles.  These circular ceramic tiles are handmade, by Swedish ceramacist duo Gutstav and Ulla Klaitz.  Note how their dappled color deepens under the pews and in circles around the font and pulpit, subtly defining these spaces.

Take a good look, too, at how removing the heavy 'legs' traditionally seen on wooden pews modernizes their look.  I've mentioned before  that this is a wonderful way to use pews--which have many benefits as church seating--in a fresh way.   These pews appear to float on blue supports that not only blend into the floor but also reference the  painted pews traditionally found in Swedish churches.

All photos by Anders Bengtsson, via flickr.
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