Friday, March 18, 2011

Restoring Beauty to the Sanctuary

I have noticed a real buzz going on among Roman Catholics who are restoring a sense of beauty and reverence to older church buildings who were "modernized" in the wake of Vatican II and newer church buildings that took their cues from a religious style sheet that emphasized Soovik's idea of gathering space, functional design, and minimalism with respect to art and adornment.  I spent an evening following link after link in which the rather inconsistent Vatican II alterations of historic buildings were undone and, instead of restoration to what was, a restoration of beauty and liturgical function left it both fresh and timeless.  Then I happened upon a trail of links of modern buildings whose often stark and blank canvas was redone with attention to the liturgical legacy of Roman design and the mass yet was not a repristination of any one past architectural style or form.  Most of them were surprisingly well done.  Check out this example from Texas.

It seems that a number of "rules" were common to the work of such restoration.  I believe that they are equally worthy of Lutheran church buildings (whether old buildings "modernized" or new buildings without much soul for worship). 
  1. Get rid of the carpeting.  Ceramic tile, stained/polished concrete, stone, or hardwood is the floor of preference that both accommodates usage, restores acoustics dulled by think and abundant use of carpeting, and removes the often dated and ugly colors chosen for carpeting.
  2. Get rid of the pew cushions.  Not only do pew cushions suck up the sound and work against the singing of the people and the sound of the spoken word, they are often stained and downright ugly.  A good pew will sit better without cushion than a poorly designed pew in which the cushion is used to make up for a lack of good design.  If you cannot get rid of them, re-cover them with a denser foam and with a deeper and more earthly tone (personally, I would avoid gold, orange, red, or blue or primary colors).
  3. Re-stain the blond wood and make it warmer with a darker stain.  There are companies that will come in and refinish the pews and chancel furniture on site for reasonable cost and the difference in tone will make a deep difference in the warmth of the space.
  4. Install stained glass -- if not throughout the building, look at the windows in and around the chancel.  The color adds warmth and character and the symbols and pictures of faith reinforce what takes place within that space.  Check out eBay for used windows and new ones that fit inside the current windows may be much less than you think.  A few years ago we installed 14 custom clerestory, three windows for the Trinity, and the round means of grace window that is on this blog -- all at a cost of about $30K.
  5. Install a crucifix (or, if that is too much for your Lutherans to accept in one bite, try a Christus Rex).  It is amazing how much the figure of Christ on the cross makes a strong statement to all who enter, what is our focus, our source, and our goal in what takes place here.  Again, there are supply houses that reclaim such things from churches closed down or remodeled and they can offer a break in cost.
  6. Move things around so that the altar is central and so that the pulpit speaks well into the building.  Move the baptismal font to the entrance so that people have to pass it on the way into the building.  Sometimes moving things around can radically reshape our sense of the whole space.
  7. Expand the chancel -- either by moving the music to the back, taking out a row or two of pews (who sits up front anyway), or extending the rail.  The chancel should be 20-30% as big as the nave and so often we sacrifice chancel space to add in seating.  What we are left with is often a busy and cluttered area that is the visual focus of those who sit in the pews.  In addition, it is hard to function in crowded space with acolytes, assisting ministers, etc...
  8. If there is an abundance of wood (or fake wood) paneling, paint it (start with a good quality primer) and avoid stark white -- neutrals in the cream family if you must but several tones may work much better than one solid color spread over the entire space.
  9. Religious art -- not the burlap banners of the 1970s but well done liturgical hangings (from quality seasonal banners to a dossal curtain to paintings to icons) can make a huge impact in the character of the worship space.  There are stencils available to make it more accessible if you do not have artists available to you.  Talk to the congregations who have these kinds of adornments and see where they found the artists and artisans to provide them.  They will serve you for many generations.
  10. Paraments -- I am struck over and over again by old, ugly, and minimal hangings on the altar, lectern, and pulpits of our churches.  This is an area that makes a big impact and is very reasonable in cost.  Instead of buying stock items, talk to some sources of supply about the custom paraments that allow you some design flexibility.  The transformation of the chancel through the use of liturgical antipendium is profound.  We have full Jacobean frontals that cover all four sides of our altar and ground the whole space with color that points to the season, feast, and festival for each Sunday.
  11. Lighting -- did you know that incandescent bulbs are on the way out.  Now is a great time to reconsider the lighting in the church -- general lighting over the pews and specific lighting for the chancel (flood and spot lights).  Sometimes a mere change of bulbs or fixtures transform the space in ways that you would never guess.  Check with some of the lighting consultants who often work for cheap because they also gain commission on the fixtures they sell or from the manufacturers they represent.  You are not obligated to take their advice but they can be very helpful.
  12. Forget the modern idea of gathering space, and take a look at your chancel from the perspective of sacred space.  What is being said by the design, the arrangement of furniture, and the art (or its lack).  Remember it does not have to Gothic or baroque or Romanesque -- it can be modern.  But it should not be jarring, stark, or cold.  We cannot afford to be forgetful of who we are -- especially in worship.
If there are those who think that the money for refurbishing the worship space might be better spent elsewhere, just remember how much is spent on creature comforts in our buildings (heat, A/C, etc.) and think of this as an investment that strengthens identity, purpose, and consequence of who we are as the church of God.


Anonymous said...

Since the altar is the focal point
of the chancel, there needs to be
an altar which invites joyful and
reverent worship.

The altar is not another piece of
church furniture from a catalog. It
needs to radiate the presence of God.
Paraments, Candlesticks with real
candles are accent pieces compared to
the actual construction of the altar
itself. We should not be cheap or
cut corners when considering the
cost of marble, or stone, or even

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

I would tend to agree with most of the points made about renovation. Though some might be more difficult than others. Which would be more difficult in a Lutheran church, adding a crucifix or getting rid of the padded pews? I think the padding would be much more difficult to eliminate, though the difference in accoustics would be sifnificant. I definitely agree with the comments on colors. It is a fact you can tell when a church was built, or re-modeled by the colors they use. And once you've got orange pew pads with avacado green carpet and the colors in the stained glass windows were chosen to match them; you have quite a mess.
Fortunately most of the newer church buildings are more plain and utilitarian than badly decorated.
I often see too much light colored woodwork, or worse wood work that does not match, along with an accretion of stands and other items that do not match the rest of the church.
About a year ago I visited a little country church that was the classic wood frame white building with the steeple and a beautiful interior of hand carved wood and tin paneling. Unfortunately someone tried to modernize the chancel by removing the crucifix over the altar along with the panel behind it and replaced it with a stylized modern metal cross. They also replaced the lectern and the pulpit with new rather plain blonde wood versions. It was awful, and most anyone with functioning retinas knows it. The new furnishings in and of themselves aren't bad, just inappropriate for the rest of the building.
I learned quite a bit that day, that regardless of whether the church is of a contemporary design or 130 years old, make sure what you change looks right with everything else.