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.
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