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.


  1. Chris are you feeling led to write a book about this experience? I'm feeling led to encourage you to write a book about this experience.

  2. I kinda feel that this blog IS a book ;) Now if only that publisher would call..

  3. Interesting to noodle around your church-house blog--it would make an interesting small book!

  4. Yes it would. Especially if I added anything from the last few years.