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.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Green Roofs in Church Design

The purpose of a green roof was originally to provide insulation from the cold; this early example is from Hof, Iceland [via wikimedia].

A 1998 example by architect Björn Dahrén for a church in Aligsas, Sweden is similar:  a simple sod that insulates a building constructed from trees on the church's own property. Note the bracing required to support the weight of the green roof. [photos by hansn, via flickr]

Modern green roofs typically feature an assortment of plants rather than just sod; this 'rooftop wellness garden' was installed by teenagers with Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice at St. Joan of Arc Church in the South Bronx.  [via urbanee]

The first green roof to also be certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation was installed by the Christian Reformed Church National Headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  To qualify as a habitat required over 20 different plant varieties, perching structures, a variety of soil depths and gravel swaths to appeal to a diversity of bird and insect species.  [via advancedgreenroof]

A new addition to Frank Lloyd Wright's First Unitarian Church in Madison, Wisconsin was given a sweeping  7,000 square foot green roof to complement the angular copper roof of the original building.  'LiveRoof' modules, which come complete with full grown, locally cultivated plants, were used for immediate effect and lower initial maintenance. [source]

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Cistercian Abbey Church, Irving, Texas, Cunningham Architects, 1992

Like the Lullington church, the Cistercian Abbey Church  by Cunningham Architects has a refreshing solidity rarely seen in modern construction, largely because the use of load-bearing stone is so expensive.  The Texas limestone blocks of the sanctuary average 3’ x 6’ x 2’.

Though Romanesque-inspired, the church underlines its modernity with plain concrete columns, stainless steel cables that hold the glue-lam roof in tension, and the most innovative and effective feature in the space:  a gap between the roof and the wall covered by glass tiles that allows light to wash down over the rough surface of the limestone, turning it into a textural delight equal to any stained glass.

via archdaily, photos by James F. Wilson.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Lullington Church, James Bateman, 1939

from the collection of the Royal Academy

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Painting Over the Doors

Large, graphic exterior paint jobs are nothing new in contemporary design.  But the way this project by domesticarchitecture paints over the doors, not just the walls, is useful for both showing the name of your church AND highlighting a nondescript entrance.  A good sign company can make this work over glass doors as well.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Space for Books

I grew up in a church that had an ENORMOUS library, complete with a proper librarian for checking out the books.  That just doesn't happen anymore.  But I think this bookcase is beautiful as a mini-library within a multi-purpose space...the printed materials are available from all directions as people circulate.  A great room divider as well...

Also by nendo, also via dezeen.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Children's Space Carpets

Our new children's house design is a combination of closed classrooms and open classrooms around a central gathering space.  For that space, I love these new carpets by Italian designer Luca Nichetto  with Japanese studio Nendo.  So versatile, since they can be laid overlapping or apart, and do you see how you can line up the kiddos by having them each sit or stand on one of the circles?  So helpful for choir time! I'd love to have these for softening the floor in the classroom spaces, to be brought out into the larger space as needed.  

via dezeen.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wayfinding Wallpaper

"Wayfinder is a line of wallpaper designed to serve a functional purpose within the context of architecture. Wallpaper is typically decorative. Symbols are typically functional. The combination of the two creates new possibilities for architects, interior designers and space planners."

And churches...these are an interesting solution for larger buildings in which bold wayfinding is needed, for contemporary retrofits, and for older church spaces in which the bathrooms are hidden down a hallway and difficult to find!  They would also be a great graphic addition to a youth space.

The Wayfinder wallpaper is by Mike and Maaike Inc, manufactured by Rollout.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On Starting Spiritually

This image from the Gensler Biola University classroom-to-chapel project reminded me of how important it is to start a sacred project with the enunciation of a sacred vision.  For this chapel, that was a juxtaposition of the physical place of the chapel--deep in a building--with a spiritual place--the depths from which we cry--both made for prayer.

The first thing that you tell your architects should be your spiritual vision.  And if you don't have that, you're not ready to build.

Here's what went to our architects, in their very first brief, before we had talked about much of anything regarding the physical form of the church.
beacon hill owasso
“A key scripture for the church is Psalms 43:3-4: “O send out thy light and thy truth: let them lead me; let them bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy tabernacles. Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy.” 
“Below are the outlines of the pastor's sermon taken from the church’s guiding scriptures, and which contain some key concepts that are important for the site, particularly of beacon and pathway. 
Church Building
1. There is needed a beacon of light and of truth. (O send out thy light and thy truth)
2.  God must send it out. (O send out thy light and thy truth)
3.  God will give us a pathway to follow. (let them lead me)
4.  Then holiness will follow (let them bring me unto thy holy hill)
5.  Then God’s presence will be known (and to thy tabernacles)
6.  Then service will be sanctified (then will I go unto the altar of God)
7.  Then joy and its expression will be real. (unto God my exceeding joy)"
You're not ready to build if you can't enunciate your spiritual vision, and if your architects can't connect with it, they're not your builders.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Classroom to Chapel

Those who are retrofitting existing spaces should also be inspired by the conversion of a windowless basement classroom to a prayer chapel by architects Gensler for Biola University in California.

To banish the 'classroom' feel, the chapel was given curved walls, an undulating ceiling and not a single square corner.

"Recycled strips of timber were mixed with wood harvested from olive trees around the campus to create the uneven finish of the chapel's timber ceiling...A narrow skylight creates a band of light across the ceiling at one end and illuminated glass blocks create brightly coloured windows in the curved interior walls, but offer no views to the rooms beyond."

This is an uncharacteristically small project for Gensler, an enormous firm with a world-wide reach, whose annual design forecasts are interesting reading for those seriously thinking about how the physical space of the church responds to cultural trends.  

[images and quoted text via dezeen]

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Alvar Aalto on Good Church Design

A church...needs pure and devout forms, whatever these forms may be.   
Purity of form can only arise from careful and highly developed artistic work, which calls for a dedicated and highly developed artist. 
 -Alvar Aalto

Friday, May 3, 2013

Beacon Hill Baptist Church Design in Architect's Journal!

And since I haven't posted in awhile I"ll take this opportunity to say that I'm incredibly pleased that the designs for my church's new building were featured last spring in Architect's Journal  as part of their special issue on Faith.   You can read the entire article from the images below.
beacon hill owasso

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Timber on the inside

Our new church design includes a series of simple vertical wooden elements that repeat around the glass worship space, and on the  porches of the surrounding buildings
beacon hill owasso

Two things that (at least in the Western tradition) intuitively speak to us of 'sacred space' are verticality and repetition.  Think the columns of a cathedral.  But using thin, wooden timbers is a lovely way to enable a space to feel the same way in a more modern (and affordable!) idiom, and within a smaller area.

Witness the ski resort cafe, below, by Japanese studio Design Spirits, which feels startlingly church-like:

The project was a retrofit of an existing interior space, and was completed in just 45 days, which should be inspiration for any church congregation faced with refitting a secular space to sacred purpose.

(photos via dezeen)
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