Thursday, May 27, 2010


Sunday evening I shared dinner with three friends at my apartment and then we drove out to my site and shared the Lord's Supper. We planned this, but Saturday night I became afraid. Never in my life have I taken Communion outside of a "church" and without a "minister" present. Is this okay? Are we allowed to do this? So I prayed, and reread the scripture about this meal, which said that those taking it ought to do so in "holy awe," taking to heart its purpose of calling to mind the death of Jesus. The focus is on the hearts of the people, not on where they are or who they are. There is no requirement for someone with special status in the church, or with a certain degree, or with a lofty spiritual track record, to be present before the Lord's Supper can be celebrated. The point is to remember Jesus' death for the forgiveness of sins. That is all.

From my apartment we carried four glasses, a jug of grape juice, a small plate with a slice of bread, a Bible, and a candle. We joked that it was a processional, and indeed it was. We called the girl who carried the candle the "light-bearer."

During the drive I realized I forgot the stool we would set the elements on and stand around for the meal. But soon I thought perhaps God made me forget, because our improvised alternative was much better. We parked on the side of the road in front of the site, continued our processional into the woods, and sat down in a circle on a carpet of pine straw. The candle was lit. It seemed appropriate to have a light at the center of us.

There were some logistical hiccups, like when to read which passage of scripture, who to pass the bread to whom, when exactly to pour the juice, etc. - all expected for a first time, and could be easily ironed out for the next. But the improvisation also brought out some beautiful elements that we will have to keep. Such as when one of us picked up the plate of bread, turned to the person to her left and said, "Christy, the body of Christ, broken for you." This continued around the circle, each person first being served and then serving, until the first person to serve was served last.

We had mentioned over dinner that we should think of a song to sing after we take Communion. Jesus and his disciples sang a song together after the Last Supper. But when we finished the bread and cup we still hadn't thought of a song that we all knew. We sat in silence for a minute. Then I said I knew the first stanza of Amazing Grace. One of the others said, "Done." We sang it twice, to a chorus of evening birdsong.

Later I marveled at the democracy of initiative as we stumbled our way through this sacrament. One person started the serving of the bread. After we took the bread and sat silently for a minute, I said, "The blood of Christ," and we all drank in unison. Another asked me to read the scripture a second time, which I gladly did. Yet another suggested we sing Amazing Grace again; joyfully we obliged.

This reminded me of the verse, "There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28) Two of the members of our group of four are married to each other, but you wouldn't have known it to watch our little gathering. The two didn't sit next to each other (though not purposely), and so didn't serve each other the elements. As joint heirs with Christ, the Son, children of the Father, we are all siblings. We will remain so even after death, when all marriages end. Marriage is temporary; spiritual brotherhood is eternal. As it happened by the "accidental" order in which we sat, marriage was deferred to the Beautiful Community.

One dream for this new house is to have regular services centering around the Lord's Supper, but I never imagined sharing this sacred meal in these woods before construction even begins. Now I feel that the place is ready.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


I thought I'd take a break for one post from talking about the architecture of the house to give an update on the push towards construction, especially regarding how money has been influencing this process.

I met with my builder last weekend to go over her new cost estimate, which was revised to reflect the more detailed drawing set I gave her. There was good news and bad news. The good news was that my first choice for window and door type is about the same cost as my second and third choices. So I get the windows I want. The bad news is that the total revised cost increased to an amount significantly beyond my financial ability. So we talked for a little while about ways to reduce this cost back to what I can get a loan for. Then my builder made a selfless, and ridiculous, suggestion: that I work as the general contractor for the project. With her fee out of the estimate, along with the cost reductions we talked about, the project would likely be back in my budget. She said that she just wants to see this house built, even if it means losing her paying job on the project.

That's encouraging on several levels, of course. I told her I appreciate the gesture... and that it's clear she has more confidence in me than I do. Though I've worked as an architect for over eight years, my experience on construction sites is limited, and my experience actually managing a construction project is nil. The idea of being my own general contractor for this house had crossed my mind before - and flew right back out because of this complete lack of experience. Not to mention the apparent impossibility of doing this while working a full-time job. At this point was thinking: the project's way over budget and the only way to change that is to do something I have no experience with and no time for.

So I left that meeting and immediately... rented a movie. To escape. To relax. To get my mind off this prospect of losing a project I've worked six years on and felt God leading me to do. The movie was "District 9." A fine film, by the way, with a surprisingly touching and hopeful ending. It hit the spot. I was in another world for a while.

But God has a tendency to inhabit even the fantasy worlds to which we escape and use them to teach us something. I finished the movie on one day and the next day started watching the "special features" included on the DVD. In a few statements by Neill Blomkamp, the film's director and co-writer, I heard my lesson. "District 9" was his first feature film, and by the looks of him he is my age at the most. He said that at the start of shooting, "I wondered what the hell I was doing. I was fairly stressed out... I was completely unprepared." Looking back on the whole experience, he said: "I'd do a lot differently. But that's what happens with your first film; you go through an insane learning curve. And you can only go through that curve by being thrown into the meat grinder and coming out on the other side."

I've tried to remind myself often that this is only my first house, and part of the point of the project is to learn and grow as a designer in ways I couldn't otherwise. I thought it would be enough learning for me to watch a design of mine get built, and then live in it. But to actually contract it myself would add a whole other level of learning to the process. That's one steep learning curve, which I would not give myself. Is God giving it to me?

The lesson continued: Blomkamp noted that for this first film of his he "picked something that wasn't conventional, which made things more difficult." Oh, I do know about that! There's not much in my house that IS conventional. And here is his concluding statement: "This was not an easy process. There were lots of stressful moments for me, for sure. You can go through that level of pressure and that level of stress only because you're asking yourself, Is this good? Am I making something worthwhile?" I recognize this question; it has haunted the back of my mind ever since the first ideas for this house entered the front of my mind, and no doubt will only increase in volume as I proceed. But I have been diligent over the years to dig it out, lay it on my desk and stare it down. The answer has always been "Yes." And I don't think I spoke it.

I like to break apart the word "encourage" to make it "en-courage," because it suggests a process by which courage is inserted into something. Hearing the words from this young director on the other side of his first film filled me with courage. I had prayed for this, for God to give me courage to do this work, whatever it takes to do what he considers good, worthwhile. He's answered this prayer in several ways; the movie was one. Recently while driving to work I felt a sense of courage to get started with this house as the contractor - as if courage was just dropped into me. I haven't felt that before. Suddenly I'm just ready to go.

It is significant that all these potential changes I have to be en-couraged about were brought on by the limits of my budget. If I contract the house myself it will only be because I can't afford to pay a contractor to do it. But as I look back it seems that God has already used the limitations of my budget to guide the project in a number of other ways.

The first time this happened was over a year ago. I finished the design and felt quite strongly that it was what God wanted. Then I got the estimate back, and it was about twice as much as I could afford. That was too much of a difference to just change some materials or details; the whole design had to change. After a period of discouragement, I started to work again, and over the next few months redesigned the house to be almost 900 square feet less than the original, from 2,250 to 1,380. But here's the best part: the new design is better. It is simpler. It is more unified. It is more sensible. It even feels humble. I had to admit that the limits of my budget led to not just a smaller and cheaper house, but to a better house overall.

Another way this project seems to be turning out better because of budget limitations is its location. The site I ended up purchasing for this house was not my first choice. My first choice was in downtown Wilmington. I made an offer on a property there but the owner refused to budge on the listed price, which was too expensive for me. So I started looking again and found a property in a smaller nearby town, a 10-minute drive from downtown Wilmington, in an older suburban neighborhood. I don't like the suburbs. But I could afford it.

Since purchasing this lot I've learned some interesting things about the suburbs. Just in the last few years America's population crossed a major threshold: more people now live in cities than in the suburbs. For several decades prior to this, the majority of the population lived in suburbs. Something else I learned, which comes with this population shift, is that the suburbs appear to be on a path towards becoming the new slums. The population shift to cities is raising prices there and driving poorer populations to the suburbs. This got me thinking about this location I have been forced upon by my lack of funds - where I want to build a house of worship and life. Perhaps God is building lanterns in places where the sun is setting.

As often as I've wished I had more money to spend to build the ideas I fall in love with first, I have to remember that God has been faithful to take what I have and guide the project - and not merely to be a smaller version of my idea, but to be a better version entirely. This is humbling. According to the examples I've shared here, it appears that if I had more money this house would be less about the Kingdom and more about me. And even with my intentions at their best, I can't decide for God which exact design and location will do his work best, especially regarding the future. So, through a glass darkly, and with way too little experience, onward I go.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Great Room

The first six images here are part of a series of works called "Cathedral Floorplan Etchings" by artist Tyrus Clutter. They were made through a special process where actual floor plans of European cathedrals were printed with several different colors and sometimes text. I've included these to point out a similarity between these churches and the Great Room of my house, which is the space at the top of the plan on the right of this page.

At the center of each of these plans is a square, defined by four columns and flanked by secondary spaces. Simplifying this plan to its essential order yields a nine-square grid: one square at the center, four at the corners and four directly adjacent to the center. What is special about the nine-square grid can be seen by comparing it to the four-square grid. With the latter the center is an intersection of lines; with the former the center is a square, an area - architecturally, a space. A space in the center, surrounded by a
ring of eight other spaces.

As seen in the church plans here, this grid is often modified to accentuate the hierarchy already built into it. In addition to being the center, the central square is often made much larger than its surrounding squares. Volumetrically, the center space is almost always the highest, and the most brightly lit. The gesture is four forces coming from the four corners of the earth. Where they collide with each other is a great architectural drama,
an explosion of space and light.

The center becomes so lofty that it seems a kind of Jacob's ladder, a vertical thrust more to do with heaven than with earth, a way for angels to visit us. The four arms by contrast are about this world, extending horizontally in each of the four cardinal directions. This spatial order speaks in parables. People come from everywhere to gather in worship to God, then take light back to their places in the world. A person comes in from work, sits in prayer to God, then goes back to work filled.

This building form expresses the rhythms, the oscillations, between relationships symbolized by horizontal and vertical directions, between mission and worship, people and God, earth and heaven, that characterize the Christian experience.

My great room space, shown in plan below (with floor patterns) and cross-section next, is similarly a modified nine-square grid. The center square is about twice the width of the outer spaces, about twice the height, and is capped by a skylight. Volumetrically, as at the center of the cathedrals, a horizontal space is penetrated by a vertical space - an intersection between earth and sky.

The cross shape is obvious two-dimensionally in the cathedral plans, and more abstractly in my great room plan. But perhaps more significant to both is the three-dimensional "cross" happening between two opposite volumes which we can inhabit. The place where the two volumes overlap is special, an intermingling of the heavenly and the earthly, a symbol of Jesus.

I didn't borrow this spatial order from the cathedrals. I've only recently noticed the similarity. I've also only recently noticed that I've been working with variations on the nine-square grid for about fifteen years. Below is the plan of a library I designed as a second-year student. The central core is illuminated by a colored glass skylight.

And here is a top view of a model for a marionette puppet theater I designed in third-year. The center space and four corner spaces (stages) are open to the sky.

Even when in my final fifth year project I was compelled to design a church with free-form curves, the spatial organization still shows a central inner space surrounded by outlying spaces. Over the center space here are large skylights.

In the section through this church the transition from horizontal (mission, earth) to vertical (worship, heaven) is directly expressed through a hyperbolic curve.

The power of this spatial form lies in its communication of a central, essential experience of the Christian life following the two greatest commandments to love neighbor and to love God - a focus on both horizontal and vertical relationships. I think this is why the cathedral builders used it, and also why I have kept returning to it, and return to it now for one room of a house. It seems that God has been giving this form to his architects for quite some time.