Sacred Moves Uptown

Exploring the special considerations it takes to build spiritual centers in the middle of the urban sprawl.

02/01/2016 By Timothy Eckersley

There is a need for daycare during services, facilities for child and teen services, as well as adult classrooms and a multipurpose hall in order to foster fellowship and belonging. Parish offices may also be part of the project, as well as special spaces such as art galleries or outreach programs for the homeless. Of special importance are spaces in the building that encourage casual interaction before and after services.

These functions can often take up more floor area than the sanctuary, opening potential for making the classroom spaces multi-functional with operable partitions to accommodate sports and choir practice. Consideration should be given to designing these spaces so that they can host other organizations. For example, at Redeemer the classrooms are used by a school during the weekdays.

Space utilization can be maximized in other ways. At Manhattan’s Oversea Chinese Mission, a church that needed to make better use of its existing building, we designed three separate sanctuaries on three floors, and they can be used simultaneously by linking together with a central audio-visual system.

The three spaces all have different characteristics, similar to how services are conducted in three languages at this location. The ground floor was set up as a chapel and is used for formal gatherings such as baptisms and weddings, and movable seating supports bazaars, parties, and classrooms with an operable partition. The second-floor sanctuary is the spiritual heart of the church and has fixed pews in a radial plan. The space on the third floor is simple and features robust finishes and lighting. It is used for overflow attendance, children’s’ play space, and classrooms.

client organization
Churches are made up of big groups that have a depth of valuable experiences but sometimes competing agendas. For the building project to go smoothly, strong internal leadership is a must, and different church committees must be willing to delegate to one or two representatives who communicate directly with the architect and contractor.

During the programming stage, the architect can help to guide the whole church community toward consensus. All parties need to have the confidence to buy into that agreement as the guiding route map for the rest of the project. Based on that consensus, a design is developed to be presented to the whole congregation.

Many congregations have a history that should be acknowledged in their new buildings. Key objects and relics, stained glass, or other artwork can be sensitively integrated into the design of a new church, thereby maintaining a sense of continuity. For example, parish churches in England are containers of local history almost as much as they are churches.

Thoughtful design and engaging discussions parties will ensure new churches honor their pasts while always looking toward the future.

Timothy Eckersley is the senior associate at Gertler & Wente Architects. He received his MA and Diploma of Architecture from the University of Cambridge, has served as instructor at the CUNY NYC Technical College, and is a visiting critic at the NY School of Interior Design. He has worked in London, Hong Kong, and New York. His work has ranged from commercial to higher education and industrial projects, with particular expertise in the design of new churches.

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