Discussing
A Christian call for urban design intervention

Josh Larsen

Mara
December 7, 2011

As a child I never needed a watch. My body time was kept from my earliest recollections based on the chimes and bells of the Catholic Church at the centre of our town. I didn't even use an alarm clock until I left the range of those bells to go to university and wondered why I couldn't wake up on time. The fact that the bell tower was across from a liquor store and a block from the strip club didn't detract from the effect of the bells on my physiology but I am sure it bothered some of the Catholics. The same church sheltered the homeless on cold winter nights and fed them when they were hungry and never locked the doors to the sanctuary as far as I know.<br><br>From the first time I saw pictures of Chartres Cathedral, I dreamed of walking the pilgrim's maze by candle light. I'll never be able to do it now, but it is one of those sacred spaces that has the history of dedicated faithful hands laying stones by candlelight and long dead pilgrims bringing their prayers and fears to God.<br><br>I have to feel that as I approach religion with a more mature viewpoint, I also lose the childlike distraction of sparkly things. Now I turn rather to the view that sacred spaces are made sacred by the way they are used more than by their purposeful and often expensive design, although beauty is important. <br><br>I think God's architecture is more invested in relationship building than building pretty concrete waterfalls. Where we can do both, then that is lovely but I have yet to see an "Urban Renewal" project that creates one of these gorgeous designs that is friendly to the needy and homeless. So often the beautiful newly designed church and community pushes out affordable housing and the new church plant tries to atone by raising money for the poor who can't afford to live in the lovely utopia. I think we have to be careful not to repaint our spiritual poverty in a new design.

Monica Selby
December 7, 2011

I certainly see your point, but I don't think that's what Visioneering is trying to do.  What he says reminds me of a visit with some church planters in Manhattan.  We got off the subway, walked a few blocks for some coffee, and headed on to the old church building they rented weekly.  We passed stores, restaurants and apartments along the way.  When I listened to him talk, that's what I thought he meant.<br><br>And I loved it, in NYC.  But, the city I live in is SO car-focused (an autopia) that I have no idea how it could be changed.  Perhaps smarter people than I have visions for that , but at the moment it seems more important to live well with what we've got here.

Rickd
December 7, 2011

I appreciate Mel's perspective and I appreciate the approach to design he is promoting. But when it comes to the subject of sacred architecture Mara's got a point. I have 3 favorite churches, one in Kansas City that is a reclaimed shopping mall, one in Albany Oregon that is also in a reclaimed windowless mall, and one in Redding that is a windowless, functional auditorium. The exuberance, joy level and love for the gospel is so high in these three places that often people start lining up early to attend church, which barely accommodates the crowds. I'm not sure the precious sacred spaces with soaring clerestory windows and sculptural facade would feel the same. The church was vital when it met in catacombs, Solomon's porch and private homes. The soaring basilicas and gothic cathedrals de-personalized the community of faith.

Mara
December 7, 2011

Perhaps I am wrong about their vision. Looking at their impressive portfolio of mega churches though I think I would be intimidated about joining more than half of them because I would assume we didn't have the net family income to tithe enough to cover my share of the mortgage on the structure. <br><br>I think I would rather join a church that meets in a gym or has peeling paint and old carpet but isn't straining under the birth pangs of astronomical debt, considering all the suffering in the world at the moment but that is just me. In the old days the one room school and the church were the same building often as not.

Monica Selby
December 8, 2011

Okay, yes, I see your point.  I was thinking more about city renewal than church buildings.  And I agree.  Those places are beautiful, but I would rather meet in a home or a disused school.  As another commenter mentioned, the church thrived in the catacombs and churches all over the world meet in dark basements, abandoned buildings, and under trees.

Mel
December 10, 2011

I love the thoughts and the heart expressed here. <br><br>I accepted Christ under a tree on a school campus, and enjoyed early ecclesia experiences in clubs, gyms, and alleys, and converted garages. Clearly, it is easier to relate Christ's directives to relationship building versus bricks &amp; mortar building. However, I do get concerned with what I see as a "gnosticism" of place, which ultimately says "I'm too spiritual to build anything physical." I believe that we are called to cultivate creation into community and culture.<br><br>Just as a home facilitates family (through a stable, safe environment for shelter, breaking bread, etc), communities are "housed" in physical environs. <br><br>"We shape our buildings and forever after they shape us." (Churchill). Certain environments are toxic (eg. the postwar modernist US &amp; Soviet "Projects") while others have been catalytic in facilitating relationship, conversations, and community. This is true at several scales, from the region, the city, the neighborhood, and down to the individual building.<br><br>As a firm, we've been asked to respond to the challenge of ecclesias that have had to face a choice between saying "No Vacancy" to outsiders who may have never heard words of eternal life or spending money on buildings in order to make room for those outside the door. We wrestle with the fact that every dollar spent on bricks &amp; mortar could be spend digging a clean water well in Africa or feeding the homeless. However, we've learned that these can be investments in Kingdom building (with measurable "Return on Investment") Our first "Best Church Architecture award was for a pre-engineered metal "Butler" building (often used for barns and factories) and our most recent was a renovation of an abandoned hangar that no one could figure out a use for. Stewardship does not preclude beauty, intentionality, or authenticity. Our firm's practice is largely based on figuring out how to tear down walls between ecclesia and their surrounding community by making these spaces legitimate hearts of the city, rather than a Christian "country club" or holy huddle.

Rickd
December 11, 2011

Mel, I don’t think anyone here is saying, “I'm too spiritual to build anything physical." I think instead there is a reaction against “concrete waterfalls” as Mara put it. I think your architectuaral practice sounds quite exciting and I love the creativity of re-purposing an airplane hanger! As I said, of my 3 favorite churches, two are repurposed shopping malls (and I am sure any creative architect would think quite ugly), and our church, which you may have visited if you are from Portland (Beaverton Foursquare) is a large windowless auditorium. Those spaces are bursting with life though you might consider them architecturally “toxic”. The point is, church is people, the Spirit incarnate in flesh (the opposite of gnostic). In the evangelical church we like to play the “Gnostic card” for effect, just as some like to play the “race card” in politics. You may have visited Imago Dei in Portland (now in a church building), a thriving church which met in a rented school auditorium for years, or Evergreen Church that meets in a tavern, or Rivergate that meets in the Multnomah Arts Center. My point that the church was quite healthy when it met in Solomons Porch or in private homes was meant to say that the church is People, not a building. The Church at Ephesus met with Paul at the rented School of Tyrannus. Nobody sets out to design an ugly church building, I believe it should be as creative and esthetically pleasing as possible. My office in the Pearl District, which won an architectural award for creative design, is a repurposed 100 year old warehouse. What I am opposed to is the single purpose, grossly expensive works of art like Philip Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral, or the equivalent of the empty European Gothic cathedrals. Or the need to construct soaring, specialized “sacred spaces”.  Any space is sacred where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. The author of Hebrews says “here we have no continuing city” and “Abraham was seeking a city whose architect and builder was God”. That being said, I love your firm’s intent to “tear down walls between ecclesia and their surrounding community by making these spaces legitimate hearts of the city”

Joel VanderWeele
December 15, 2011

One aspect of this conversation which hasn't been touched on very much is the fourth dimension: time.  While I absolutely agree that an amazing church experience can be had in a re-purposed strip mall or windowless auditorium, I think the ideal church building also says something about a congregation's dedication to a particular practice in a particular place.  <br><br>A church building should be built in such a way that it is clearly a place of worship and is clearly meant to last longer than one generation's enthusiasm (for this reason, the form of the building should resist architectural fads and fashions as much as it can).  A solidly built and significant church building declares that in a quickly changing world where transience reigns supreme and generations are measured in technological advances rather than in the human experience of time, the two thousand year old practice of Christian worship abides.  In a time when church congregations migrate and conglomerate as often as they do, this sort of investment in a particular place can be hard to take, but it is not unimportant.  <br><br>The way a building is used is and always will be extremely important, perhaps most important, but the form of that building also has an impact which should not be ignored.

Rickd
December 15, 2011

Where did this “Should” come from? A church building should be built in such a way that it is clearly a place of worship and is clearly meant to last longer than one generation's enthusiasm.” We have no examples in the New Testament of single purpose “Church” buildings being constructed. What we do have is the example of Jesus saying that when the temple was torn down, He would raise up an imperishable church, his body. Paul called us a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ. We have the example of meeting on Solomon’s porch, in Aquila and Priscilla’s house, of renting the school of Tyrannus and meeting outdoors next to a river. As far as we can tell, the first single purpose “Church” buildings were built hundreds of years later under Constantine when he absorbed the Church into the state. The theologians of the Holy Roman Empire thought we were living in the Millenium with Christ ruling on earth through the Papal authority and as such built permanent, holy structures which, though beautiful, are empty today. Contrast that to the author of Hebrews in chapter 11 saying Abraham was “seeking a city whose architect and builder was God”. And, “Here we have no continuing city”. I have no problem with the desire to meet in a functional, creative, affordable space. But building a “solidly built and significant church building” that declares “the two thousand year old practice of Christian worship abides” seems to be more an artifact from the eschatology of the Holy Roman Empire and not the authentic New Testament church.

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