Considering that few interiors evoke an emotional response as deep as a place of worship, designing such spaces can present unique challenges. Not only designing for the client, in this case, the designers must create interiors that inspire and satisfy the needs of the congregation and community. For the most part, when designing a place of worship, the goals are “to create the space that mediates between our earthly existence and the spiritual essence of human life; to facilitate the communication of each person with their community of faith and with God as they understand God to be; and to provide a place that encourages the building of community, as well as individual development and fulfillment,” says Robert Balke, AIA, LEED AP, principal at tvsdesign in Atlanta.
Jim Goring, AIA, a partner at Goring & Straja Architects in Berkeley, Calif., adds, “The design, obviously, must facilitate the mission and the nature of the congregation's expression of faith. Is the space intended to contribute to the experience, or simply stay out of the way and allow 'communication'? This often comes down to the difference between what I call churches that seem like churches, and churches that house black box performance spaces.”
Elaborating on this concept of place of worship as performance space, Stanley Daniels, FAIA, a principal at Jova Daniels Busby in Atlanta, explains, “Today’s places of worship are primarily different in their orientation. One of the goals of the past was to create a feeling of mysticism—to awe and to elicit emotion. The mood has moved more toward performance. The chancel platform is essentially a stage. Platforms are now oftentimes built larger to accommodate the demands of contemporary worship style services as well as other activities including plays and concerts. One of the biggest changes from years past is the desire to incorporate a sense of community within the walls of the church or synagogue—a place to linger and socialize.”
A central theme that seems to permeate all worship design—regardless of religion or denomination—is that of inclusiveness. Worship spaces are no longer used only for services, but instead the community has become more involved in using these spaces for gathering and mingling. “Design follows function. In terms of the worship space, the trend is to cultivate inclusiveness and community,” Daniels continues. “Central plans or variants are very popular. Within the mainstream denominations, the challenge is to maintain continuity with history and yet respond to the current preferences in modern worship. Symbolism is still important to these congregations, but the space needs to be mitigated with warmth and inclusiveness.”
Today’s worship spaces can be categorized as either the traditional or the contemporary (or mega church), which are more of these “performance spaces,” more open, flexible, and high-tech and less bound by dogma and tradition. “The difference is timelessness versus timeliness,” says Balke. “While all great design endures, some interior design is more expressive of its time, and others more expressive of timelessness. For us spaces of worship speak to the eternal and evoke emotional responses that are most often found in experiencing nature and beauty. Design values, therefore, are basic—daylight, direct or mysterious, texture and color of natural materials, volume and geometry, sequence, sound and music.”
Goring breaks down the non-traditional worship spaces into two general trends: technology and what he calls “retailization.” In some of today’s mega churches, he sees worship teams comprising youthful, high-energy personnel who are very knowledgeable about AV and theater technology. “Large projection graphics, computer controlled lighting, and very immersive and well-tuned audio systems drive the layout and design of the space,” he explains, adding a comical comparison, “These can become the church equivalent of the ultimate 'man-cave' [or God cave]—the space's shape and finishes are designed around the performance of the AV systems.”
Goring goes on to explain the concept of the retailization of places of worship as being designed more like a Borders bookstore, more warm, comfortable, and friendly. “The thinking goes that if the worship space is comfortable, familiar, and therefore ‘non-threatening,' young families will be more easily attracted and retained. So large church lobbies resemble Starbucks and Borders right down to the opalescent low-voltage pendant lights, purple textured vinyl wallcoverings, and ersatz porcelain/slate flooring.”
He continues, “In this respect, these worship spaces are specifically designed to NOT look very different from other places people gather or go out to in their daily lives. The design direction is retail/hospitality, not 'church.' These institutions recognize that many people read 'church' in images and memories not too different from 'elementary school principal's office.’ The intent is to create a place that feels approachable, non-threatening, familiar—create sacred space within the profane space through community and communication.”
The emergence of these “mega-churches” does not mean traditional formal churches and temples have been completely eradicated. Both Balke and
Goring cite Richard Meier’s stunning Jubilee Church in Rome (shown right
) as an awe-inspiring structure that engages visitors as any of the classic cathedrals of centuries past might have. “The long narrow nave has historic significance and will never disappear, but modern, enveloping spaces and the contemporary service/mega church eschewing ornament will continue to be alternate viable options,” notes Daniels.
As far as trends in materials, textures, and finishes go, “the uses of materials that catch light or transmit light in an evocative way are of great interest in the design of spaces for worship,” Balke says. “But the desire to inspire and create a sense of mystery is also matched by the need to endure and be maintained easily for many, many years. Significant places of worship are among the most enduring architecture created by man.” Daniels agrees, adding, “Clients are seeking materials that are durable and maintainable. Materials that evoke permanence and warmth are the preferred choice. Some churches are opting for more color and more blending of textures/designs.”
But overall, the trends today are toward inclusive, community-driven, flexible places of worship. And Balke adds that beyond creating these welcoming, non-threatening interiors, the goal is “to provide a space that is understood to be holy and suitable for the worship of God; to create a space that is uplifting, beautiful, and wonderful; to create a space that inspires.”