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Searching for Sacred Space
ESSAYS ON ARCHITECTURE AND LITURGICAL DESIGN IN THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH
By John Ander Runkle
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2002 the editor and contributors
All rights reserved.
A Call for Bold Leadership in New Church Building Design
W. Brown Morton III
When is the last time you saw a newly built Episcopal Church building and said to yourself, "That is one of the most inspiring buildings I have ever seen?" If such a time has been rare for you or if you have never had that reaction, you might ask yourself why.
My work as an architectural conservator has taken me all over the world to help thoughtful people plan for the future. This planning includes deciding what existing buildings to preserve, and when to introduce bold new design into existing settings. As a result, I have come to understand something about what makes the world's great places and great buildings great. Greatness, throughout the history of architecture, has come consistently from bold innovation. Greatness has rarely resulted from timid imitation or complacency, both of which are subtle forms of cultural cowardice.
So much of recent institutional design in the Episcopal Church is uninspired, boring, and utterly predictable. Both the client and the designer appear to have lost confidence in the idea that the church's architecture can be a powerful force in spiritual development. Few building committees perceive spiritual self- confidence and innovation in new church design to an essential manifestation of prophetic leadership. Instead, we have settled for bland buildings that meet congregational needs for space and program, but which do little to help our spirits soar. We may well ask if we have become captives of today's design and construction industry. Few new church design and construction projects begin with the ambitious goal of creating a fresh vision of the New Jerusalem. Instead, we begin with "program" numbers: square-footage, heating and air- conditioning requirements, parking spaces, dollars, and timetables. We then confront the sad fact that almost all building components are prefabricated and mass-produced.
Thus, architectural design becomes largely an exercise in figuring out how to make all the pre-existing pieces fit together. Consider for a moment the tyranny of the standard 4-foot × 8-foot sheet of plywood and the eight-foot long two-by- four. Look down the eaves line of most post-World War II residential neighborhood streets and contemplate the rigid conformity that lurks behind the vinyl siding and the brick veneer. Finally, add into this the very necessary safety demands of today's building codes. There seems, at first glance, little room for genius.
Are We Afraid to Dream
Joseph Hudnut, Professor of the History of Architecture and Acting Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at Columbia University from 1926 to 1934, commented, "Architecture tells us not what men were at any period of history, but what they dreamed." Are we afraid to dream? A casual survey of most mainline churches built since 1950 would suggest that we are. Lining the roadsides and anchoring the suburban intersections of post-war America are imitations (sometimes timid, sometimes aggressively over-scaled) of earlier architectural styles.
Hudnut also pointed out, "Architecture cannot be explained by social and political circumstances; it is made out of the longings and starvations which the soul has endured." Have we forgotten this too? Where something non- traditional is attempted, the result all too often looks as if it was inspired by a nearby golf club, ski lodge, or motel. Are we neglecting the important function of the church building to represent the refuge we seek in Jesus?
This is not to say that there has been no excellence in innovative church design in the United States in the last half-century. There certainly has. Regrettably, it is the exception not the rule. And I must ask why most building committees are content with a new building that is a feeble echo of an earlier style or a bland adaptation of a nearby community center?
There are three possible explanations. First, traditional church architecture feels comfortable to us and at the same time conveys an unspoken sense of past authority. Second, "modern" architecture conveys to many Christians something dauntingly secular. And third, we appear to lack confidence that our own experience of the living God is vibrant enough to fuel an authentic new expression in church building design.
The Easy Comfort of Tradition
Traditional church architecture feels comfortable to us because it is so very familiar. Many of the world's best-preserved historic buildings are religious buildings. Most of them were the result of bold and innovative design in their own eras, seeking to express some newly valued perspective of God to those who built them. We perceive them, rightly, as links to the historical traditions of faith and icons of past practice. However, we fail to appreciate that we can never recapture the past or directly participate in the faith perspective of an earlier era. We can learn from the past, but we can never duplicate it.
Our Bubble Called "Now"
We humans live each moment of our lives in a constantly moving bubble we call "now." It is always "now" for us. Yesterday was "now" when we were there. Tomorrow will be "now" for us when we get there. Now is the only moment in which anything is possible for us. We can never remain behind in a past moment or advance prematurely into a future one. Our reality has been established by the unique interface between linear time, which we know as "chronology," and circular time, which we know as "process" or "becoming."
The ancient Greeks referred to these two kinds of time as chronos and kairos. Most of us are more familiar with chronos than we are with kairos Chronos is linear and sequential. Chronos measures one thing after another. It marks a place on an unrepeating continuum, but carries no suggestion of value. Kairos, on the other hand, is a circular measure of time. It denotes where something is in the cosmic cycle of conception, birth, adolescence, maturity, deterioration, and death. The "something" can be a natural event, such as a season of the year or the life of a flower. Kairos marks a stage in the life cycle of an individual, a community, also of an idea, a political system, a technology, a theology, a liturgical practice, or an architectural style. These two very different, although always tangent, aspects of time—chronos and kairos—redefine the fingerprint of every place at every moment.
Van Gogh's Sunflowers
We human beings also "think" historically. We tend to perceive reality through the lens of our own personal experience and the collective experience of our particular community, group, or era. Since each moment is unrepeatable, by this time tomorrow, next week, or next year, we all will have moved on from this one. Our life experience and our perception of reality will have been modified by the accrual of our additional experience. September 11, 2001 is clear example of this phenomenon. We can never return to the America of September 10. Once we have seen a Van Gogh painting of sunflowers, we see sunflowers in the garden differently than before. Similarly, in terms of church architecture, because we have lived in the twentieth century, because we have wrestled with the spiritual implications of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, human travel in outer space, and now international terrorism, we can never be people for whom past styles—the Gothic, Georgian, or Greek Revival—are authentic expressions of who we actually are as Christians now.
The Traditional Versus the Modern
Since "modern" architecture conveys to many Christians something thoroughly secular, many avoid it as a solution to contemporary church building design. Present day "traditional" and "modern" architectural styles face in opposite directions—traditional styles look to the past while modern styles focus on the present or the future.
New buildings in traditional styles seek to establish a visual connection between the present moment and an historical period. Buildings imitating the Georgian style of eighteenth-century America link us to our Colonial culture and to the lofty ideals of the Revolutionary era. Georgian buildings make us feel safe, and American. Georgian churches, particularly in places such as Virginia, were icons, even in their own time, of established Anglican orderliness. The best of these churches shared a consistent and comforting design vocabulary with the fine houses of the upper class. The sturdy "Protestant" liturgical arrangement of the interiors, with emphasis on the Word and preaching, reflected the particular evangelical spirit of the times. Georgian churches were true to their own era and have worn well across the centuries. Imitating the Georgian style in new church building design is a favorite choice of many congregations. It is a safe choice, a familiar choice, and it can be a visually pleasing choice. However, it can also send the message that God is Georgian, a proposition that may sit well with some Episcopalians, but which may strike others as suffocatingly stuffy.
Starting in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the Church of England experienced the Oxford Movement, which soon spread across the entire Anglican Communion. The Oxford Movement was a reaffirmation of the medieval heritage of the church: liturgy, vestments, and pre-Reformation architectural forms. The architectural style of choice during this period became the Gothic Revival. The feeling and appearance of many new Episcopal churches, throughout the rest of the century and well into the twentieth century, backed away from the Protestant, rational simplicity of the Georgian and Greek Revival periods and wrapped themselves in the mystery of medieval pointed arches and rood screens. As the church re-embraced early expressions of sacramental worship, elaborate altars complete with reredos, and banks of stained glass windows, took prominence again, and the pulpit moved to one side of the choir.
All this was an authentic architectural expression of a genuine liturgical phenomenon within the church that matched perfectly other artistic achievements in literature, art, and music from what we now refer to as the Romantic Period. Indeed, the two-centered Gothic arch has become a sign and symbol of "church" even more deeply imbedded in our collective memory than the golden arches of McDonalds is of fast food. And this memory is so powerful that many new churches, often ones on a modest budget, are designed with little more than a stripped-down Gothic arch in a prominent location, the hope being that this will make the structure look "churchy." Surely there are fresh contemporary design solutions that can also clearly communicate dignity and reverence.
What Could Glory Look Like?
Secularism truly has won the day if we are reduced to using paste-on architectural motifs from centuries past to express our faith. The Mexican architect Luis Barragán, who died in 1988, has been quoted as saying,
I find it alarming that architectural publications have deleted from their pages words like Beauty, Inspiration, Magic or Bewitchment, as well as concepts like Serenity, Silence Amazement and Intimacy. All these are nestled in my soul and though I am fully aware that I have not done them complete justice in my work, they have never ceased to be my guiding lights.
Barragán designed many outstanding buildings, largely in Mexico, including churches.
We appear to lack confidence in the proposition that our own experience of the living God is sufficiently vibrant to fuel authentic, new expressions in church design. The sources of this lack of confidence are complex.
Our faltering can be traced back to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century in Europe at which time the idea that "man is the measure of all things" finally gained precedence in the popular mind over the centuries-old belief that "God is the measure of all things." This shift in basic belief from sacramental reality to scientific reality finally tore the veil of the temple into entirely separate pieces—the sacred and the secular. Although a few brave voices in the last century, such as C. G. Jung and Thomas Merton have tried to mend this tear, we now live in a world where science mistrusts mystery. This has affected us all.
The realm of faith expression has become so compartmentalized in our daily life that we fail to understand it as a possible source for a bold new expression, through design, of the Christian gospel. We have become hostages to the contemporary meaning of the word "appropriate." Most greeting cards mailed in December say "Seasons Greetings" or "Happy Holidays."
In such a world where we gingerly pick and choose how to visually express our faith, lest we offend, it seems to be easier to stick with the tried and true rather than take the risk of delving into the mystery of our own life in Christ in search of new material. This must change. We must dare to be different. We must dare to show who we really are.
Another source of a lack of confidence in new church building design can be found in the fundamental issue of the nature of divine revelation. Some Christians feel more comfortable with a theology that suggests that God's revelation is more or less complete, having taken place in the past. Other Christians eagerly anticipate God's continuing revelation in the here and now, and in the future. Still others sit uncomfortably on the fence. For the first group, traditional church design is a clear choice. Many in the second group shrink from exploring new expressions because they do not feel competent in matters of architectural design and construction and are fearful of making a layperson's mistake.
Learning From the Kingdom Within
How can we overcome our lack of confidence in boldly seeking new expressions in church building design? Where can we begin? We can make a start by examining our own faith experience, individually and collectively, and identify the moments, events, and experiences in which faith has been most meaningful to us. We then should carefully analyze those moments, events, and experiences to identify what exactly gave them such quality. In what way may the following factors have contributed to that quality: space, volume, light, dark, temperature, humidity, sound, quiet, simplicity, richness, choice of materials, security, intimacy, awe, focal points, and views? In other words, if we believe that intentional architectural design can affect the state of our being, then the question becomes, "What can give three-dimensional space sacred qualities?" If we do not believe that design can affect our inner state, then church architecture need be no more than an exercise in "program" and numbers.
T. S. Eliot, in his Four Quartets, characterized the church of a long-abandoned religious community in England called Little Gidding as a place "where prayer has been valid." There is the seed of a very important idea in that statement. Something about the abandoned church building at Little Gidding still communicated the spiritual work of those who used it, long after they and their specific words and actions had fallen silent. The important idea is this: It is possible to intentionally design and construct sacred environments that encourage and sustain successful spiritual development. An expression from the Sufi tradition in Islam says, "The hen does not lay eggs in the market place." Nothing is wrong with a market place. It is just not the optimum locale for egg laying. What might be an optimum locale for prayer, for sacrament, for contemplation, for rejoicing? Just how can we design and construct new spaces to support vigorously our ongoing growth in God? This is the challenge.
There is a fancy word for a very spiritually useful concept: euthenics. In a thin little book, The Superior Person's Book of Words, the author crisply identifies euthenics as "the science of improving the condition of humans by improving their surroundings. In contradistinction to environmentalism, which is the science of improving the surroundings of humans by improving the human." Euthenics can be thought of as helping other people to burst into full bloom through design. Why not practice spiritual euthenics as an exercise in Christian ministry? Let us improve the spiritual condition of humans by improving their spiritual surroundings. There is no better place to start than a new church. Old wisdom will not, in every case, do. Quoting Eliot again, "... last year's words belong to last year's language / and next year's words await another voice."
That voice should be bold. That voice should be strong. That voice should be ours and that voice should be faithful.
Excerpted from Searching for Sacred Space by John Ander Runkle. Copyright © 2002 the editor and contributors. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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