Thursday, August 2, 2012

Icelandic Stained glass by Gerður Helgadóttir

Too much church stained glass copies a kind of vague European-ish style, and ends up feeling as inauthentic as tract developments of supposed 'chateaus' and 'villas'.  But these works, by artist Gerður Helgadóttir (1928-1975)  beautifully reflect their Icelandic heritage and place.

Gerður is best known for filling in the arches of Iceland's innovative Kópavogskirkju, built 1958-1962 by Ragnar Emilsson and state architect Hörður Bjarnason in a traditional cross shape, but with parabolic rather than rectangular sections.

stained glass images via art-iceland
church image by Vignir Már

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Pews by Thomas Heatherwick

Pews often get a bad rap in church circles.  The pews/chairs debate is a very individual one for congregations, but in a time when I see theatres switching out chairs for bench-style seating, I wonder whether churches are just on the slow end of the design curve.

So it is interesting that British designer Thomas Heatherwick was commissioned to add permanent pew seating to a mid-century monastic space whose original design had specified unfixed chairs, which came to be viewed as "invading the space and creating a feeling of disorder and temporariness".  

His interpretation of the pew in American black walnut, embedded with a thread of ash, captures in contemporary fashion one of the best aesthetic features of the traditional church pew:  the strong, coherent line it makes in a worship space as opposed to the broken and often chaotic lines of chairs.

[photos via dezeen]

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Partners for Sacred Places - assisting congregations with historic buildings

Mother Bethel AME Church, Philadelphia

There is additional information about the California Craftsmen churches at the website of an organization called Partners for Sacred Places.

In 2003, the US National Trust for Historic Preservation listed 'Urban Houses of Worship', collectively, among the most endangered historic sites in the United States.

Partners for Sacred Places, with regional offices in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Chicago Illinois,  are committed to helping historic sacred places "remain a rich and vital part of the social fabric of a community. Partners helps congregations leverage existing and new resources, solidify their continued relevance, and ensure their own sustainability."

They offer training, technical assistance and capital improvement grants, and an information center with resources for congregations in historic buildings, including articles like The Repair and Maintenance of Bells and their Fittings, Fire Alarm Systems in Historic Places of Worship, strategies for adaptive reuse, and renovation case studies.  

Monday, March 19, 2012

California Craftsman Churches and Architectural Values

St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, by Angeleno Heights resident Arthur Benton, once stood at Echo Park and Laguna avenues, across from Echo Park Lake in east Los Angeles. It was demolished in the 1990s.  [source]

The original 'mission-style' chair was made as seating for San Francisco's Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem, which still stands.  Image via Wikimedia commons.

The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, 1894 by A.C.Schweinfurth, cost $5130 to construct.  Photo by Daniella Thompson, 2004)

Berkeley's St. John's Presbyterian Church was built in 1910 and designed by Julia Morgan, who also designed the far more lavish Hearst Castle.  It is now an arts venue. Image via

California's unique version of the Arts and Crafts movement expressed itself in churches as well as its better-known homes.  The Craftsman movement was an idealistic one; its proponents really believed that architecture expressed values and they tried to make these churches suit the values they professed,  among them authenticity in materials and a devotion (at least in rhetoric) to a simpler, more natural approach.  These things can be read in the buildings now, but were even more apparent at the time when they were built.  The contrast between these churches and the prevailing Victorian style of fancy brickwork and heavy ornamentation was intentional, and unmistakeable.

These churches look gentle and quaint.  But at the time they were a coded rebuke; a smackdown to the church architecture status quo.

There is certainly design inspiration here...shingled facades and heavy timber beams (note the Vitruvian supporting posts of solid redwood on First Unitarian) are still beautiful features, as is the Swedenborgian church's back-of-the-sanctuary fireplace, which I long to see in a modern worship space.

But more than that, they remind us that our architecture expresses our values.  Does that reassure you about your own church...or make you uncomfortable?  

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Church Design Zebras

In medical school, they call them zebras.  Most things a doctor sees are just plain old horse.  Colds, flu, plantar warts.  And so the saying "When you hear hoofbeats behind you, don't expect to see a zebra".  Yet it's well-known that new med students are prone to diagnose common symptoms as rare diseases.  Mostly because once you think about a zebra, it sticks in your mind.  

Our church has spent a year and a half in the design process.  We started with a series of meetings to discuss the history and meaning of church architecture, then moved on to simple bubble diagrams of what type of spaces we needed.  Once we had design concepts and preliminary floor plans from our architects, we had a series of all-Sunday afternoon sessions in which we laboriously listed every function of the church and how it would work in the new space.

And always, always, there has been concern about the zebras.
"What if we need to do a two-casket funeral?"  
"We simply must have a bride's room!"
"I want to be able to completely curtain the stage for a musical performance."
"What if we have 800 people for Christmas?"

Once someone fixates on a zebra, it can be hard to move them off of it.  And zebras require special care, because they are often tied to cherished events like holidays and weddings, or to a congregant's particular ministry focus like the music program or Vacation Bible School.  

It helps to gently remind people that they didn't build their own house to anticipate every possible eventuality.  And we can't build the church to, either.

They didn't build their house to hold, year-round, the 35 relatives that fill it at Christmas time, or to anticipate their daughter's wedding dreams.  Those are zebras.

The 80/20 rule works well here.  We've worked hard to ensure that the design is amazing for 80% of the church's functions.  And that it is flexible enough to *accommodate* the other 20%...some of which we can't even anticipate.

Zebras are rare.  So we've made sure that we can set up extra chairs, shift classrooms, meet outside, and hang the odd theatrical component from the ceiling for their occasional visits.  But it wouldn't be a good use of the Lord's funds to build the church for the zebras.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Transparent Church, Gijs Van Vaerenbergh, Limburg Belgium, 2011

Gijs Van Vaerenbergh's recent construction in the rural landscape of Borgloon (Limburg, Belgium) is based on the design of the local church, but reimagines it as something like a line drawing. By using horizontal plates for construction, the familiar shape of a traditional church becomes a wraith-like object that appears nearly solid or nearly transparent  depending on where you're standing.  And I think it feels quite sacred.

Modern churches can so reject tradition in both form and materials that they become completely unfamiliar; I'm impressed by the way this project radically reinterprets material construction while retaining a traditional shape that can still be 'read' by anyone as a church.   

Obviously it's not meant to meet in, but that is inspiring as well.  Churches rarely build anything beyond their own forbidding walls. Landscape interventions, like this one and the cross-gate, are an opportunity to reach into the semi-public space around the church.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In my Father's House are Many Mansions

"In my Father's House are Many Mansions", a bronze sculpture by little-known Swiss artist and sculptor Werner Hilbern, cast in 1970 and installed since 1989 on the wall of the cemetery in Wil, Switzerland [from the Wil website].  I've been looking and looking at this and am so moved by it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Stained glass and gold mosaics

Many churches of the past relied on awesome architecture and heavy applied decoration to make going to church a spatial experience unlike any other.

Most modern churches, and particularly small ones, don't have either of those.  So how to make a place feel special in a way that is contemporary rather than historicist?  I like to think about new interpretations of traditional church materials, like stained glass and mosaics.

These acrylic lights by artist Tobias Rehberger seem to take the stained glass out of the windows and put it overhead.  They're not commercially for sale (they're on gallery exhibit here) but similar work could be done by a fused glass artist; even my hometown, not known for the arts, has several good fused glass practitioners. 

If you can't afford the golden glass mosaics of St. Paul's, consider the amazing wallpapers of the Chicago firm Maya Romanoff, who through some alchemy have formulated hangable designs made from wood veneers, real metal, mother of pearl, mica and even light refracting glass beads.  They are essentially modern mosaics, to adorn an altar or back a baptistery, create a focal wall in the entry or a luxurious stripe around a room (hung out of reach of little hands!) or maybe adorn a ceiling, ala St. Paul's. 

Maya Romanoff wallpapers are are high end products, with prices at $200 a yard and up.  But I can think of few less expensive means to make such a big impact in just a few feet.  As always, remember to put your money into a focal point; if it is beautiful enough noone will look anywhere else, saving you money spent on multiple small design interventions.  These 'wallpapers' will do that.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ixxi for church wall art

The large spaces of church interiors can make wall decor a challenge; so often I see churches that have good intentions of warming up their interiors with wall art designed for the home, but because it isn't properly scaled for the wall sizes of a church building it just ends up looking odd.  Large-scale works, though, are usually custom, and therefore expensive.

So I was excited to see (via design-milk) a modular hanging system that joins individually printed cards together to create large-scale wall art.  It's a dutch system called ixxi, and you can use it to make a single image,  a collage, or an abstract pixelated piece.  Your design (or you can use their stock designs) is enlarged and divided onto printed cards 20 x 20 cm (close to 8 inches square), which are joined together with their system of with their 'x’s' and 'i’s' (thus the ixxi name!) to produce a wall piece or even a room divider.  You could use an image that is meaningful to your church's vision and mission, a text, or even a logo.  Think of the impact in a lobby, or a children's or youth space.

And it's surprisingly low-cost!   A 100 card system is about $200, including shipping from the Netherlands, which would make it reasonable to even change out the image over time or seasonally; ixxi also offers 'card only' pricing for those who already have their x's and i's. 

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