Thursday, April 17, 2008

Chapel of St. Ignatius, Stephen Holl, 1997, Seattle, Washington

So, the post I meant to publish last week--before the Crisis in the Lab and the Wedding of the Brother intervened-- was about St. Ignatius, another chapel whose design and symbology centers around light.

Steven Holl describes the chapel as a stone box containing seven 'bottles' of light. Skylights and colored glass are used to create seven different qualities of light, corresponding to elements of the (Roman Catholic) liturgical progression:
1. Procession – natural sunlight 2. Narthex – natural sunlight 3. Nave – yellow field with blue lens (east); blue field with yellow lens (west) 4. Blessed Sacrament – orange field with purple lens 5. Choir – green field with red lens 6. Reconcilation Chapel – purple field with orange lens 7. Bell Tower and pond – projecting reflecting night light

The interior of the chapel flutters with patches of colored light, as if inside a very slow-turning kaleidoscope. It is frankly brilliant.

I do find the exterior disappointing; the stone bottles rising from the box seem awkward and piecey, uncohesive. Nevertheless, this is a building I would travel to see.

And having something of a background in optics I love the front door, which has seven lenses (repeating the seven bottles theme) set in at different angles to rotate light into the interior at different times of the evening.

Whether this style of building would suit your church or not, let it inspire you to carefully consider the power of not just the presence of light, but its nature (color, intensity), its progression (time of day and season), and its absence (shadows) as well.

The best photos of the chapel are by Liao Yusheng at figure-ground.

P.S. I wish I knew what the finish on the (concrete?) interior is, creating the slightly 'blotchy' pattern. Any help?

Church of the Light, Tadao Ando, 1989

Today, two churches that are uniquely centered around light...

The first is Tadao Ando's Church of the Light in Osaka Japan which is well-known in architectural circles but, paradoxically, not in church-y ones.

Though Ando certainly works in a minimalist fashion, the asceticism of this church was as much an issue of low budget as of aesthetics. The contractor donated the construction of the roof when funds ran out and the church pews and the floorboards are made of construction wood salvaged from concrete forms and scaffolding.

Ando is an architect by talent, not by training. He has no formal education in the field but nonetheless received architecture's highest award, the Pritzker Prize, in 1995.

Church of the Light is quite small, and its all-concrete construction has been described as claustrophobic by some. But it demonstrates well the power of light, the possibilities of negative space, and the wisdom of putting your money where it counts, in a strong, central focal point.

[Lovely images, above by Liao Yusheng. An excellent tour of the entire site, which gives some sense of the way the unique concrete forms of the church are experienced, is here. And of course, there is a Wiki on the Church of the Light.]

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

On Being Light, Having Light, Installing Light

If I had a limited budget with which to improve a church property I would spend it on two things: paint and lighting.

Given the prominence of light symbology in the Christian tradition, I wish churches paid more attention to it. Technology has made its opportunities boundless, and cheaper than ever.

Take a browse through one of my favorites, Tillett lighting, and be inspired.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Hadid's Aqua table

I'm not a fan of Zaha Hadid's work, but I do find her 'Aqua' table inspirational in thinking of unique forms for an altar or communion piece. The silicone top is translucent, so that the organic 'legs' beneath appear as deeper pools of color. [currently selling for $78, use it as inspiration to make your own.]

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Great Church Pew Debate

Next to music, it is perhaps the issue of the church pew that divides the traditionalists from the trendoids. I've seen debates over this simple, mundane piece of furniture lead to shouting matches and folks leaving the church. May I point out that, whatever your view on the pew, it's not worth that?


1. Tradition - Some people have a visceral, positive reaction to a worship space containing pews, born most likely out of their prior religious experience. Pews, to them, look and feel like church.

But this applies to the 'unchurched' as evidenced by the fact that many non-churchgoers want a church with pews for their wedding.

When pews have been in a church a long time, members may see them as imbued with the prayers and spiritual aspirations of congregants who have worshipped there before them.

If kneeling collectively is an important part of your church tradition, pews with kneelers are still the best way to accomplish it.

I think it's important to point out to Americans that in many European churches, the pews are part of the furnishings of a protected historic building and changing them is forbidden. This would apply to only a few congregations in the US.

2. Flexibility - This is the pew's greatest practical strength. While pews are inflexible within the FLOOR space (see below), the SEAT space of the pew itself is very flexible. Because there is no designated, 24 inch seating area, as with a chair, a larger person can take up more space, and a smaller person less. A pew can be 'packed' for special events, temporarily expanding the sanctuary's seating capacity. Spacing is organically adjusted for relationships--families and couples can sit closer, or an appropriate personal space can be kept between strangers. Children can lie down on their parents' laps. I've noticed tired children shifting around in chair seating, unable to rest their head comfortably.

3. Comfort - modern pews with padding are as comfortable as chairs. And do we really want to offer people the equivalent of a lazy-boy recliner, anyway?

4. Expense - Though expensive new, pews that are used are widely available, often for free or just for transport.

5. Underlying spatial philosophy - pews are 'shared', chairs are your 'own'.


1. Tradition - Some people have a visceral, instinctive dislike of a worship space containing pews, again, likely due to past religous experience. It also seems, however, to be a reactionary position taken up by long-time churchgoers without particularly bitter memories in an effort to be somehow modern. Is it possible to be a 'modern' church using 'traditional' furniture?

2. Flexibility -This is the pew's greatest practical drawback. If you want to use the sanctuary space for more than one purpose, or use a lot of different worship space configurations, it's tough to move pews and nearly impossible to store them. Pews don't stack well.

3. Comfort - There is no doubt that vintage or antique pews were made for people of a smaller average size than those of today. And they'd never heard the word 'ergonomic'.

4. Expense - New pews are much more expensive than new chairs.

5. Underlying spatial philosophy - pews are 'shared', chairs are your 'own'

My take:

If your pews have a long historic tradition in your congregation, keep them and modernize in other ways. The costs of discarding your history are too high. Try to add padding and footrests for additional comfort if you can.

If you really need to completely reconfigure your sanctuary frequently (at least once a month), chairs are the only and obvious choice.

It's been my experience, however, that many churches think they'll do this and then never do, usually because moving alot of chairs is really hard work. (Believe me, I know. It is not uncommon for the pastor's family to pull janitor duty). If you are using chairs in fixed positions (which is like pews anyway), the clean, strong line of a pew is more aesthetically pleasing, and will allow the aforementioned flexibility within the seating space.

Personally, I wouldn't even consider fixed, theater style seating, which has the immovability of pews but none of their flexible-spacing advantages. It combines the worst of both options.

If you're buying, consider specifying shorter pew sections combined into longer lengths, as it is the long pews that are the most inflexible within the floor space. Consider areas (around the stage? near the back? a flexible central area?) where you might want to remove or change seating for special events and use chairs there. This can also be done in sanctuaries with existing pews, where replacing selected pews with chairs can increase the options for floor arrangments, allowing for instance, a circling of chairs around the stage for smaller gatherings.

And that brings me to my final thought, why is it pews OR chairs? A combination of the two would work well for many churches.

Pews/no-pews can't answer what it means for a church to be relevant in the modern era. It's not even the right question. What is at issue here is simply the practical consideration of what seating style is best for your church.

Pricier Wall Fix - the Wovin wall system

Pricier, but with enough texture to make an impact in a larger space such as a sanctuary or gathering room, are these Wovin wall tiles. From Australia,but they ship world-wide.

From their site:
"The Wovin Wall System consists of a lightweight mounting grid which can be fixed to any wall or ceiling surface. The Wovin tiles are clipped into this grid in alternating directions to create the distinctive woven pattern...Walls do not require surface preparation prior to installation, as inconsistencies in finish or flatness are hidden by the tiles. Masonry and panel-lined walls can all accept the light-weight grid..."

I prefer the wood tiles, but they come in other finishes as well, including translucent models for back-lighting, metals, and custom printed options.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Cheap Wall Fix Round-Up

A few inexpensive ideas I've kept track of for making a beautiful accent out of an existing wall or part of a wall, or covering up a case of the uglies (sigh, I have known many such church walls...and having a budget of maybe $50 to improve them).

Standing pebble tiles from naturalstoneoutlet.

Wood tiles (from my files, no source unfortunately, but a relatively straightforward DIY)

Raffia wall by designer Paolo Lenti but I've seen placemats that looks like this and in fact the new heavy, architectural placemats, often made from real wood, are great en masse on a wall.

Interlocking frames or a simple pattern of thin wood strips painted the same color as the wall are a great disguise...look to garden treillage for inspiration. But don't use that ugly pre-made stuff from the lumber yard.

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