Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Textile Inspiration

Textile art in the church is often limited to needlepoint kneelers and homemade banners, but witness the ethereal splendor of Toshiko Horiuchi's handknit installations:

'Fibre Columns/Romanesque Church'
sprang, nylon rope - 15' x 90' x 12'

'Luminous Column', exhibited at 'Fabric in Space'
Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

'Atmosphere of the Floating Cube'  - knitted gold & silver Mylar with linen. National Museum of Modern art, Kyoto.  

An essential part of all of these installations is the lighting that brings them to life; in this case carefully placed floodlights.  Churches installing any form of art should consider the lighting of the piece as integral to the art itself.   

Even with the resurgence of the knitted arts and yarn bombings everywhere, I haven't seen any recent applications of knitted textiles to religious spaces.  Horiuchi's work is from twenty years ago; here's hoping some modern textile artists will follow.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Better Children's Spaces

One of the things we're spending alot of time on at the moment is the design of the children's house for our church.  We know what we don't want:  a series of walled off classrooms along a hallway where children are strictly divided by age level.  Right now, I'm really inspired by the quiet design of The Children's School, a Montessori school in Stamford Connecticut, who requested a one-room schoolhouse for sixty from architect MaryAnn Thompson.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Choosing a Church Architect, Part II

I was reminded, when our architects visited again for Easter, of how unconventional our 'selection process' was.  That's their further development of the site plan, including a memorial pavilion to the two young soldiers lost from our congregation, above.

The pavilion is where it all started; when we didn't have the money to build on our 100 acres, the congregation decided to focus on developing the front twenty-five or so intended to be open to the public in a park-like setting, which would include a memorial pavilion to the (then one) young man who had been killed in Iraq, and a lake, and walking trails.  I felt near panic at the possibility of a decision to erect a faux-Victorian gazebo from the building store down the street.

Somewhere around page 50 of a desperate google search for 'pavilion' I turned up this:

Never mind that it had been in the courtyard of the British Library, which is one of my favorite places in the great wide world;  it had a single post (an idea that had been in my mind as a symbolic sentinel) with support beams which my church-design mind read as a cross, it had been constructed to interact with the sunlight timed to a poetry reading (light is a guiding concept for our church), and it had been constructed by students from stock lumber (woohoo!  we could build it ourselves!), so I sent off an email inquiry in hopes that we could just buy the design for some reasonable sum and duplicate it on the lone prairee.

But that is not how proper architects work, and the d's of drdh would no more sell me a pavilion design that was made for another place than they would have sold me a stock church plan made for another church...not out of preciousness but because they knew, as I didn't completely understand at the time, that only a design made for us would really work for us.  And when we sat down and had a long talk about the church, and the land, and the light, and Aldo van Eyck, they said they would be happy to make us a pavilion but they really wanted to help us build our building.

If you search out conventional wisdom about how to hire a church architect, one of the most common is 'only use a church specialist, only use a firm that has designed many churches'.   This is usually put forward by firms who, guess what, specialize in churches.  Whether you choose to go with a 'specialist' or not (and we didn't) doesn't really matter though, if you just remember that in seeking out an architect you're looking for two things, and wherever you find them that will be a good place:

Skill, and Sympathy.
Skill - The firm's work (and yes, you should meet the principals, not some sales department; if you're given any sort of a marketing pitch cross them off your list immediately) should impress you.  It doesn't really matter if they're churches or not.  For 'skill' do not read 'wow-factor', as in bright colors and swoopy exteriors, and remember that gigantic media screens are not equivalent to good design.  Does their portfolio show that they think deeply about what buildings mean to people?  About how space works, and how people work within it?   About finished details?  Have they made spaces that look to you like they would feel good to be in?

Sympathy - Are the principals in sympathy with your goals and desires for the building?  If so, they will also be in sympathy with your budget, and respectful of it.   Do you feel comfortable with them as people, with how they listen and respond to you?  Do they WANT to build your church?  Never work with someone that you have to drag into the job. 
After a few more visits and talks it was clear that our architects wanted to build our church, and we wanted them to build it.  That arrangement, not just of mutual benefit but of mutual desire to accomplish, lends mutual trust.  And knowing them to be 'men of skill', as it were (see Exodus 31:2-5) freed us from the compulsion to prescribe their work, or to submit every detail to a committee review--one of the perennial complaints about the building process within churches.  We knew that they could come up with better answers on our behalf than we could on our own.  And they have.     

Monday, April 18, 2011

Colin McCahon, Elias triptych, 1959

Colin McCahon (1919 - 1987), New Zealand's most significant artist, began painting in religious themes in the late 1940s.  Through the 1950s, he increasingly utilized text, including this stunning triptych as part of his Elias series, painted in 1959.  His entire catalogue is online here.

This is a special week for our little church, as our architects are visiting again from London with the next iteration of design plans for the new building.  So no posting for about a week...have a blessed Easter season.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Initiatives in Theology and the Arts

 And if you like 'Veil', you'll probably like the idea of Duke University's Initiatives in Theology and the Arts.  Now, I live in academia, so I know how out of touch it can be, how prone to using the word cognate far too often.  (and mercy-sakes-mabel Duke, if you're going to have an art exhibit, put images online already!)  Nevertheless, it is one of the few places that accommodates the kind of prolonged, thoughtful discussions that these subjects deserve.

Since my own interest is in the way that design of space can facilitate the church, I'll be following their research into Theology and the Spatial Arts, and I wish I had time to read everything on the very comprehensive arts-in-theology and theology-in-arts reading list! 

See also related programs at the University of Otago in New Zealand  and St. Andrews in Scotland.

Thanks to reader Joelle for the tip!

[the above image of the 'joyful angel' is one of a set of windows by Charles Cordel at the Church of the Three Kings in Frankfurt, Germany   (installed 1956) has stayed with me for some time...I love his splashes of bright color in a muted, paned matrix.]

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Our new church design has a sanctuary that is a space within a space, and the inner structure provides the possibility of veiling some or all of the interior.  So I was very interested to see 'Salutation', an art installation by Wallspace for Christmas 2009.  "An exploration of the theme of the annunciation, when traditionally the angel appeared to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus, Salutation filled the church with huge muslin veils with the appliqu├ęd gold text 'what manner of salutation this might be'."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cross Tower, Kensuke Watanabe Architecture Studio, Tokorozawa Japan, 2009

"The existing church complex had difficulty being recognized as a catholic church because of its gymnasium-like appearance with no significant symbol. With the addition of this Cross Tower, the existing complex will easily be acknowledged as a church, showing its religious faith and Christian activities."

Designed by Japanese architects Kensuke Watanabe Architecture Studio for a church in Tokorozawa, Japan.  Obviously reminiscent of the Saarinen arch in Saint Louis, this tower nevertheless speaks to local traditions, using ship building techniques to  gradually twist the arch so that it faces outward at its bottom ground, adding structural stability and  "also creating a welcoming gesture which enables the tower to serve as a gate for people to walk through daily or in ceremonial occasions"

As I've said before, given a banal building, put your money into a single distinctive focal point...hiring a skilled architect to make an innovative steeple gave this church an immediate new visual identity.  [via dezeen]

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Selecting a Church Architect, Part I

Building a church requires careful attention to visual details.  If your architect isn't sensitive to the visual character of their own website, why would they be more attentive to your church?  Churches also increasingly require the incorporation of technology...if your architect can't even stay current with the design of their website is she likely to be on top of technology trends?  The worst websites are often from 'design-build' organizations, which says something, I think.  The website of a thoughtful architecture firm will also convey something of their design sensibility--traditional, modern, avant-garde.  Your first clue to a firm's character, and whether or not they will be in sympathy with your project, is its website.  Take it seriously.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Curtain Dividers for small groups

Another interesting option for flexible classroom groupings within larger spaces like those in commercial settings...from my files; I've long lost the reference.  Let me know if you have it.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Futuna Chapel, John Scott, 1961 Wellington, New Zealand - at two scales

Futuna Chapel by John Scott is considered one of the most significant twentieth century buildings in New Zealand and incorporates ideas from the wharenui (below, the traditional communal house of the Maori)--including a prominent load-bearing pole, visible rafters, eaves that slope sharply and end low to the ground, and a modest entrance--combining these features with Scott's characteristic strong geometries within a modernist idiom  The chapel was self-built by the Brothers of the Society of Mary, for whom it was designed as a spiritual retreat.

Sold to developers in 2000 and allowed to fall into disrepair, the building is now owned by the Friends of Futuna Charitable Trust, whose website has frustratingly small photos showing the sketches, models, and  interior of the church.  But who, for the chapel's 50th anniversary just a couple of weeks ago, created commemorative scale models in conjunction with the amazing 'personal factory' firm Ponoko.

What a special project for any church with distinctive architecture!  Note that scale models of 'whale' churches are unlikely to be any more interesting than the real thing.

Read more about John Scott's work, including his churches, at a very nice blog of his work:, and some more images of the futuna chapel at this flickr stream.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Rainbow Church, Tokujin Yoshioka, 2010

More than stained glass, I'd like to have Tokujin Yosihioka's column of prisms casting natural rainbows in my church.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

MIT Kresge Chapel, Eero Saarinen, 1955

Eero Saarinen's design for the altar space of the Kresge Chapel at MIT is one of the most sublime pieces of church architecture anywhere, I think, and goes to show that even if you don't like the entire building (I've never liked the chapel's exterior, though it is very much of its time)  there is still much that can be learned. 

The basic ingredients are an oculus (even if you don't have a sky light you can use a appropriate light fixture) artwork that appears suspended in space (the full length metal structure is by Henry Bertoia), and an altar, elevated so that is appears almost to be lifting off the floor, which is why people often compare this assembly to Star Trek.  But I think it's beautiful, and an accessible design for any church to learn from.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Roofed in Red

photo by Bob Travis:

Red shingles are still readily available from the big-box home stores...if you're a little white church, consider re-roofing in red next time around.  You'll be in good company with the above historic churches, and it's a good identifier.  "We're the one with the red roof".  Especially nice if you have verdigris copper accents, as in the first photo.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Good Church Design in Ethiopia

This church building in Ethiopia, in a refugee camp no less, ranks right up there with my favorites:   made with authenticity and care from the best that is available to its community.  Its theology is expressed  on its facade for all to see, using the local sand-art vernacular.   The thoughtfulness of its execution puts many American churches to shame.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Church Pew/Shelter Bed

Churches are traditionally a refuge in time of crisis...this pew by Curro Claret studio transforms into a flat surface suitable for sleeping.  I think this is a prototype at present; I can't find any information on its market availability.

[via abitare...see also the previously blogged Nappack]

Monday, January 10, 2011

Rain Lights from Within 4 Walls

Within 4 Walls, based in the UK, has an unusually creative array of light fixtures but I'm particularly intrigued by their new 'rain' series, "designed to capture the shimmering sparkle of raindrops frozen in descent".  Beautiful for church.

Unless you have a historic space with historic fixtures, consider putting some money into upgrading your lights.  It's one of the simplest ways to modernize the visual character of the space, and having actual fixtures instead of cheap fluorescent panels quickly signals 'this is a special place'. 

[via materialicious]

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Church Size Statistics...Small Churches Rule!

Approximate Distribution of U.S. Protestant and Other Christian Churches by size
(excluding Catholic/Orthodox)

  9 million 59%
25 million 35%
  9 million 4%
  8 million  2%
  4 million .4%
  .7 million .01%
approx. 300,000
approx. 56 million 100%

In spite of the fact that the megachurches get all of the attention, this chart from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research shows that in fact most people attend much smaller churches; the median church congregation size being just 75 people.

So why is there so little good design for them?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Light-Reflecting Steeple

The new worship and community center for the Salvation Army in Chelmsford, UK features a flat-panel steeple clad with prismatic glass, which changes according to the natural light; a dramatic effect against the zinc-clad exterior.   By Hudson Architects.

The best choice for a small church, or those repurposing a shopping or office space,  is often to put your money in a focal point while keeping a plain facade; the extra expense of  prismatic glass here is well worth it.
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