Sunday, October 31, 2010

This is NOT what I mean

This is a picture of a modern kitchen inside the apse of a church. A while back I googled the phrase "church house" just to see if anyone was having the same ideas as me (and posting them online). No, it appears not. But I did turn up some other projects that have been given the name "church house." I was most fascinated (and amused) by the church houses so called because they are actual historic churches that have been converted into houses. Of course this is not at all what my church house is about, but it’s revealing to compare the two. (I'm still waiting for an appraisal, so yes, I have time for some fun.)

Here is another church-turned-house. Notice that the kitchen has again been placed in the church's apse. As seen in the plan below, this "house" was inserted into a cross-shaped church. If you imagine Jesus' body on this cross, his head would be closest to the apse - the highest vertical portion of the cross (far right on the plan). And indeed this space of ancient churches was meant to symbolize the head of Christ. The congregation did not sit here. Here instead was the altar and the elements of Communion, where the priest blessed them before distribution. The apse typically faced east, as in this church - towards the sunrise, the symbol of Christ's resurrection. The largest windows were often placed in the walls of the apse. Often there was a step or steps up to the apse, as with this church too - another indication that this space is symbolically the loftiest in the building.

What does it mean that the new residents to both of these churches found it most natural to place their kitchen in the most holy space of the church? Is the kitchen the heart of our modern homes, the space around which all public activity in a house revolves?

But wait, there’s more. The transepts are the two small areas to either side of the main volume, representing the horizontal beam of the cross where Jesus' hands were nailed. The nave is the large central portion of the church, where the congregation would sit, and, on the cross, where the body of Christ lay. Together the nave and transepts represented the "body of Christ" - both literally as Christ's body on the cross and figuratively as the Church, the body of believers. So the Church, upon gathering for worship, took her place as the Body of Christ, facing the Head of Christ, her Guide, and through those immense windows looked towards his resurrection and the hope therein of his return.

Ancient church buildings articulated biblical ecclesiology better through architecture than most of us can today through words.

So in these "church houses," the place where the Holy Meal was blessed and eaten is now the place where a single family prepares and consumes breakfast, lunch and dinner. The transepts, Christ's arms, are a bedroom and a study. The nave, the body of Christ, is the "living area," complete with big-screen TV and treadmill. It’s fascinating how closely the functions of the new house parallel the old church plan symbols: meals are eaten where Communion was eaten; a place of rest and a place of work now occupy the spaces symbolizing the Carpenter's hands; the “living area” overlaps Christ's torso - the "living area" of the body with all its vital organs; and the master bedroom suite (below), the place of sleep, occupies the west end of the church, which is associated with the sunset and therefore death (the other sleep).

At first read these projects may seem similar to what my church house is about, in that there appears to be an overlapping of the domestic and the divine. Indeed this overlap is a goal for me: What happens when you start taking Communion on the same table where you eat breakfast? Doesn't that hint at the fact that whatever we do, whether eating or sleeping, is done in the presence of Christ? As Christians our homes are not places to just indulge our pleasures; they are places for God's glory. Our houses are not ours any more than our churches are. Every place is for God's work and worship.

But the typical story behind the “church houses” pictured here seems to be: a couple or family buys an old church building not in operation anymore, and renovates it to be their place of residence. The new house is not meant to function any longer as a church, and my (admittedly little) research didn't indicate that the new residents are believers. So the "house" and the "church" here do not reinforce each other. Instead the house functions have replaced the church functions. The church was bought to be used as an empty shell into which everything necessary for a house could be inserted. The house took the place of the church.

It's worth noting that the "shell" of the church is still powerfully there – still singing its songs, still pointing to the rising sun, still pulling our eyes upward through its vertical space, its windows still pointing to heaven, its plan still a cross. Try as they might, the kitchen and couches and beds and desks don't silence the expression of the architecture. So there's a clash between the old and the new, the church and the home, place of worship and place of living, house of God and house of man. The church is singing a hymn to God; the house is fixated on food and TV.

The “church house” I've designed, on the other hand, is meant to marry the functions of “church” and the functions of “house” so that both are ennobled. I designed the building to express the faith in all the ways the ancient churches did and more. The residents are meant to be Christians, so their lives and hearts will harmonize with the song of the structure. Both living and worshiping are meant to happen here, and to commune with one another. Midnight snacks and Holy Eucharist can be consumed from the same table, surrounded by the same people. The fullness of "house" and the fullness of "church" are meant to merge into one without the identity of either being lost.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Encouraged by Taizé

While I wait for someone else’s house to finish so I can get an appraisal, I can take a break from writing about money to write about something I’m actually interested in. I finally got around to reading up on the Taizé (“tah-ZAY”) Community in France. I mentioned in a previous post that I had been attending a service inspired by the liturgy of this community, and that I liked it. Above is a photo of Brother Roger, founder of the community, with, of course, Mother Teresa. But wait a second—have you ever seen kinder faces? Does God etch onto our faces, over the course of our lives, the condition of our hearts?

The story of the Taizé Community has encouraged me in several ways regarding my house project. First the beginning: Roger felt led to start a Christian community, and so in 1940, at the age of 25, he moved from his parents’ home in Switzerland to the village of Taizé, France. He got a modest loan to buy a few buildings that he planned to use for his community, and for receiving refugees from World War II. He was there two years with no one else but his sister. After those two years he left because the fighting from the war had escalated in the region. While hiding out in Geneva, Roger met a few men who decided to commit to his community. After two years in Geneva Roger and his new “brothers” moved back to Taizé. They housed and cared for refugees, and Roger’s sister cared for the orphans they adopted.

For the next five years the new Taizé community was composed only of these three or four members. Then in 1949, a full nine years after Roger first moved to Taizé, a few more men committed to the community, bringing the total to seven.

I also have wanted to start or join a community—a group of Christians that would live, work, and worship in this house I’ve designed. But I don’t currently know anyone else who wants to do this. Have I approached this project all wrong? Should I first build a community of people before investing in a physical building to house us? Brother Roger didn’t think so; he secured a place away from home before knowing anyone interested in joining him.

I’ve always thought I could, and likely would, live in my new house alone for a few months to a year before meeting other people interested in sharing the place. But what if it turns into two years? Ten years? Roger seemed especially patient living and working with only his sister, and his dream for a community, for two years before anyone else joined. That helps me push the mark of “failure” further out—perhaps infinitely so. God’s timetable for the community dream he’s placed in me may be very different from mine—and it may not even include me.

Seventy years after Roger moved to the village of Taizé, France, and bought a few buildings, he is gone. But his community of brothers numbers over a hundred, and thousands of people make regular pilgrimage to Taizé to worship with them each week.

This brings me to another way that I have been encouraged by the Taizé Community: their worship. Worship seems to be one of the most important functions of this community. Eugene Peterson, in his introduction to the book of Revelation in The Message, writes,

John of Patmos, a pastor of the late first century, has worship on his mind, is preeminently concerned with worship. The vision, which is The Revelation, comes while he is at worship on a certain Sunday on the Mediterranean island of Patmos. He is responsible for a circuit of churches on the mainland whose primary task is worship. Worship shapes the human community in response to the living God. If worship is neglected or perverted, our communities fall into chaos or under tyranny.

I’ve imagined worship being a (if not the) primary task of my church house also. And I’ve imagined this worship to be quite different from what we experience in most contemporary churches. What I see when I think of worship at this house is much closer to what is enacted at Taizé. The distinguishing mark of worship at Taizé seems to be that there is an extended period of communicating directly with God.

Five thousand mostly young people show up for the weekly services at Taizé. This gathering easily fits the definition of “megachurch.” But the worship at Taizé couldn’t be more unlike the typical American megachurch. Instead of amplified music there is the chorus of the people; instead of an electric light show there are candles; instead of padded stadium seating there is the floor. And there is an extended period of: silence. Five whole minutes. Gasp! You mean, dead air?? The people aren’t being stimulated by something?? At least a video loop, some background music! Nope, just silence. Five thousand teenagers and twenty-somethings journey to Taizé, sit on the floor, and be quiet—and they like it.

On Taizé’s website a typical service is detailed, in order: Songs of praise; Psalm reading; another Scripture reading; Gospel reading; song; silence (5-10 minutes); intercessory prayers; the Lord’s Prayer; concluding prayer; concluding songs. The prayers and readings are often responsive, too, so all the people gathered are constantly participating in the work of worship. Now notice the conspicuous absence of a primary element of most contemporary churches: a sermon.

In the prayers and songs we speak to God directly; in the readings of Scripture we hear directly from him. I was surprised that Communion was not listed as part of Taizé’s service, but in this act too our remembrance and gratitude ascend straight to Christ in heaven. It is a vertical road we travel in this kind of service. But in many contemporary-styled or seeker churches the focal point of the service is the sermon—which is one human being speaking to other human beings. God is being talked about, not to. Of course there are “vertical” experiences in contemporary services, most predominantly through the music, less frequently through prayers and Bible readings. But these times of relating directly to God are relatively minimal and fleeting, and often used merely as lead-ins to the sermon. Everything looks towards, and back to, the act of one person speaking to others.

Something I’ve noticed in researching ancient prayer services is that Communion was often celebrated about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the service—the standard point of “climax” in the ideal story. And there was only a small time, if any, set aside for a sermon. But in today’s churches Communion is seldom celebrated, and the sermon occurs at the climactic point in the service. Has the sermon taken the place of Communion?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with either type of service; mostly I feel that both are needed. But over the centuries one seems to have snuffed out the other. I’ve been sensing lately that sermon-centered services can’t fulfill the longing I have for communing directly with God—for an extended period of time, through a variety of activities—among a body of believers.

A final way I am encouraged in my project by the Taizé Community is their interest in “atmosphere.” Of course megachurches are also interested in atmosphere, but at Taizé it is not used to make people feel comfortable or to make them feel like they’re at a rock concert. Atmosphere for Taize is a worship aid; the mood created is meant to be conducive to worshiping and hearing God. The candles, the darkness, the silence—all is meant to help you hear a still, small voice. From Taizé’s website: “The voice of God is often heard only in a whisper, in a breath of silence. Remaining in silence in God’s presence, open to the Holy Spirit, is already prayer.”

The best thing I can do as an architect is provide a suitable environment for worship. My job is to make a building into a worship aid. I set the mood. I’m the table-setter for the Last Supper. I provide a setting that is conducive to worship, that makes it easy to worship, that perhaps even draws us into worship. I hope my house makes it hard for you not to worship. So I appreciate that Brother Roger and his community have paid attention to the spiritual effect of our physical surroundings.

But back to worship for a concluding thought. A sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., entitled “Guidelines for a Constructive Church,” reminded me of the special implications we should draw from the fact that the Church is Christ's body in the world. If Jesus is the head, the guide, for the vast organism of all the believers on the planet, if we are the physical expression of his heart and mind, then we should collectively do what he did. He healed, he fed, he listened, he taught, he loved. He did these things both for believers and the masses of people, for his friends and his enemies.

But also, every now and then, Jesus went off by himself to pray. If the church is to follow the lead of Christ, shouldn’t she also go off by herself to pray? This temporary leave-taking from the world, this shift from service to direct communication with God as a body, is what I have noticed is often missing from the activities of contemporary churches. The Sunday morning gathering is now often about inviting the world in. There seems to be a strain of thought among pastors today that a gathering of the church unto itself away from the world is unnecessary, or even a betrayal of her calling. This believers-only gathering, they say, is for heaven, not for earth where we have work to do.

But if even Jesus himself sometimes got away from the world—both by himself and with his disciples—to pray and sing to his Father, shouldn’t the church also? This would not hinder our service to the world; on the contrary, I suspect that regular times of prayer, Word, and song exclusively for the faithful would refresh us and thereby improve our work in the world.

Perhaps this lack of a time just for believers is what has been inspiring me to think of this church house as a place specifically tailored for such a gathering. Besides Taizé, I don’t know of any other Christian communities that provide their own in-house worship service. But now that I have become more familiar with ancient prayer services, I’m even more certain that this kind of worship is needed.