Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Changing Face of Church Architecture

This is not about style of architecture but about the changing wants of those who inhabit church buildings.  Where I grew up we had a small wooden church building in a corn field well outside of any incorporated town.  There was simply the Sanctuary (upstairs) to which a basement had been added in the 1940s, sliding curtains to divide the basement into Sunday school areas (in the 1950s) a stage area, kitchen, and two small bathrooms (also from the 1950s).  And it seemed to work fine.  There was a bit of awkwardness -- a narrow hall had the basement stairs on one side and space to hang up coats on the other side and when the front door opened the wind would bring in the winter coal and snow flakes and send a shiver down your spine.  But it was considered good enough and no one thought much more about it...

Then in the 1990s the move was one to add on space.  When they ended up with is a fellowship hall and large kitchen.  Around it were a couple of storage closets, a small Pastor's Office, two nice restrooms, and more entry area space (oh, and,  yes, air conditioning).  What had changed were spaces that were not even considered important in the 1950s -- larger, handicapped restrooms and fellowship space.

When the parish I serve remodeled and added on 20,000 square feet (2001), the wants of the people were definitely different -- large, wide, well lit hallways and an abundance of expansive restrooms, and lots and lots of entry area and narthex space to gather.  Thirty years before the narrow, dark halls and outdated restrooms were not considered a problem but now they were seen as a definite problem. 

What has changed in the Church is our desire for creature comforts (modern, clean, well appointed restrooms) and gathering space (from regular fellowship halls to the wide halls in which people can gather and talk and laugh and get to know each other).  I wonder if the reasons for these changes have to do with the fragmentation of society, the separation of folks from the roots and support system of extended family, and the increasingly isolated feeling people have.  Whatever the reasons, these changes have certainly made an impact upon the church buildings across America.

Most folks are no longer content with cramped or outdated restrooms, with insufficient or distant parking, or with cramped public areas.  What was once the press to turn buildings into handicap access facilities (complete with elevators) has become a drive to find a place for cappuccino machines, tall tables and stools, video screens, and dedicated youth space that mirrors modern day care facilities or teen hang outs (yes I know that word is out of date).

What has not changed is the desire for people outside the Church to find sacred space in religious facilities.  Lifeway did a survey several years and found that those outside the Church thought that sacred space that did not mirror the mall or movie theater complex was a definite positive and a high expectation of church buildings.  Interesting that the trends (even among Lutherans) is to make sacred space generic instead of distinctly sacred (and, I might add, traditional)...

So what does this all mean?  You tell me... but changes in architecture and buildings are not unimportant... quite often they betray attitudes about the faith and the Church that are not so obvious in other places...


Anonymous said...

I had a fascinating experience when I was head of the Biological Sciences Department in a community college. We were going to remodel a space for a much needed lab space for our students.

In working with the architect about my "needs", he shared a math formula to calculate how many students could be served in the area as a reflection of how many square feet per student were needed.

I was also serving an inner city parish in Tucson at the same time (ye, I was a worker/priest) that was built in 1961 with small restrooms, classrooms, hallways, etc.

I asked the architect how the formula changed over the decades and he smiled. He said that the space "requirements" had more than quadrupled in 40 years because of perspectives of what proximity of the next person was comfortable to us.

Another anecdote: one of our teachers' daughters is a missionary in Hong Kong. Home on furlough, she commented to me that is was so nice to be able to extend her arm to the front and side and not touch another person...having "space".

It is definitely a culture specific "need" that the church, in order to be "welcoming" must seemingly conform to. That's an expensive cultural expectation.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

I remember what Dr. William Willamon said when he became Dean of Chapel at Duke University. He looked at the beautiful vaulted ceiling, the stained glas windows and the collegiate gothic architecture and wondered how he was going to reach jaded middle class kids in a place like that. A year or so later he thanked God that the student body was called to chapel in a building whose architecture said 'kid, I don't care what you got on your SAT, God is bigger than you are.'