Monday, May 16, 2022

Worship Spaces vs. Liturgical Dwellings: Church Architecture’s Subtle Language

Last week ago I spoke about William Daniel’s treatment in his book Christ the Liturgy of the meaning of leitorugia as “work of the One for the many” (instead of its mistranslation as “work of the people”). Today I wish to look at some of his insights about church architecture, which are mainly found in chapter 3 — a searching (and often entertaining) inquiry which argues convincingly for traditional ecclesial design from the vantage of modern philosophy and psychology intersecting with biblical and patristic verities.

Daniel is uncompromising about what is at stake in how we build our churches:

The spatial structures we inhabit and the practices by which we inhabit them, as well as those with whom we relate in our environments, are modalities of contingency that incline us to perceive, and thereby understand, what it means to be (alive). (88)

He rejects the idea that architecture could ever be a neutral space, a mere “placeholder.” Even the most empty warehouse already communicates a purpose and a spirit that affects what takes place within it and the people who go there.

Researchers have only recently begun to explore the impact of architecture on the human psyche. What is interesting, however, is that without digging too far beneath the surface to understand the long-term effects of space on human cognition, we know that people’s behavior changes in relation to the space they inhabit. For instance, Jan Gehl has observed that people walk more quickly in front of buildings with blank facades. James Danckert and Colleen Merrifield have found in their work on cognitive neuroscience that people who visually take in a “boring” environment, for instance the plain frontage of a Wal-Mart store or the shadowy glass exterior of a Whole Foods, develop increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone related to heart disease and diabetes. 8 Not only this, but Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb has discovered that rats living in enriched environments are markedly more intelligent than those that live in more “Spartan” environs…. [H]ow does the space “work on” the worshipper, even, or especially, under the radar of human awareness? (91-92)

He gives many examples, based on research, of how even something as simple as the material and design of chairs and desks affect the mood and productivity of workers. Natural materials such as wood, and the presence of live plants, play a role in maintaining better spirits than obviously artificial materials and a solely man-made environment. In a way this seems obvious when stated, but that which “goes without saying” is very often nowadays simply ignored or denied.

While our individual personalities and habits may work with or fight against such spatial configurations, it is inevitable that the places we inhabit will over time affect our patterns of life, thereby conditioning us to perceive the world and others in relation to their warmth or coldness. (98)

Moving into the ecclesiastical realm, Daniel describes a High Church Anglican chapel, St. Mary the Virgin of Nashotah House Theological Seminary, where he studied for the ministry, and which he obviously found a “warm” space:

Those who inhabit the space as the dwelling place of God, where a person can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell God, experience the connective tissue of the wood, incense, bread, wine, water, chanting, stained glass and much more as a space of freedom, where scales fall from the eyes, burdens fall from the shoulders, and peace is made manifest, not as restrictive but restorative, transformative, extending one’s very body beyond itself as worshippers stand amidst the great cloud of witnesses whose prayers are still savored today.
          Not every liturgical space provides access to this divine, connective tissue. And while I in no way intend to limit the kyriake oikia to the physical structure itself, which too would betray the making involved in the Lord’s house, I seek to wonder here for a moment whether the empty space of the warehouse or strip mall church can be said to be a dwelling place for God, in the sense of ligare noted by David Jones. That is, is cylinder block or drywall conducive to liturgy? Does the warehouse afford the worshipper an attachment to the space of liturgy beyond the scheduled act of worship? If a person walked into the room would it be clear what the space is for, or are such spaces an inadvertent cutting of the ligament that binds the human physically to the celestial, giving way to a kind of spiritual atrophy? (103-4) 

St Mary the Virgin at Nashotah House
Mars Hill Bible Church

A rhetorically effective contrast is developed between St. Mary the Virgin and the “Mars Hill Bible Church” in Grand Rapids — a typical multi-purpose Protestant set-up with a stage platform and movie-theatre-like chairs, whose frequenters even nicknamed it “the Shed.”

The minimalist design of the space communicates to the worshipper that while worship does occur inside it remains detached from the building itself. In other words, the space is not a space meant to be inhabited; it is not a place of dwelling. If a person were to walk into the Shed at any other time, there would be no visible markers or signs that allow one to recognize it as a place where worship occurs...
          The contrast between the Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin and the Shed are profound. The former is a space designed to be inhabited by both worshipper and worship, a building that is itself involved in the liturgical action. The latter is transitory by design, which houses a temporary action separable from the space and, perhaps, the worshipper herself. The difference is between inhabiting a space and enacting something within a space. What is missing from the warehouse church is a deep connection with what the Christian worshipper believes and thinks — the tangibility of faith. The visceral sense of the space is impermanent. Its homogenous character neither requires anything from nor offers anything to its occupants. (105) 

Interestingly, the author pivots to a well-known sociological phenomenon — namely, that most people in the Western world, even agnostics and cultural Christians, seek “traditional”-looking churches for weddings — and offers an explanation for it:

It is telling that many who worship in these [“Bible church”] spaces refuse to be married in them. When couples desire a “church wedding,” more often than not they inquire at another local church that “looks like a church,” or they have their wedding outdoors. Why? Because marriage, something intended for a lifetime, needs a permanent space for vows to feel permanent. The temporary space of the abandoned store signals to young couples that their marriage may not last. The expressed desires are “good wedding pictures,” “memories in a holy place,” and “for it to feel like a church wedding.” The message hidden from a couples’ immediate awareness is the need to feel like God is present for their wedding and that their covenant will last. To be and to dwell, as Heidegger notes, are inseparable. (ibid.) 

Returning to the contrast between the Anglican chapel and the Shed, Daniel draws out further implications.

The major difference between the two spaces of worship noted above is that one, the Chapel at Nashotah, is incorporated daily in the making of Holy Eucharist, while I cannot say if this ever occurs at Mars Hill. The irony is that the name Mars Hill invokes a somewhat sacred site, where the Apostle Paul preaches before an altar dedicated to “the Unknown God.” One might speculate that Mars Hill in Grand Rapids bears the marks of an Unknown God, given its lack of symbolism or anything that might disclose the space as Christian. Perhaps the name is deliberate to invoke Paul’s mission to speak amidst the false god of consumer capitalism, witnessed by the abandoned storefront. Nevertheless, the Eucharist — the sacramental action whereby God creates the church — is that which makes any space a space of dwelling. For this reason it is easy to recognize a space that has been designed by and for Eucharistic action. These are not temporary structures separable from the liturgy, even if they lend themselves to more than just prayer and the breaking of bread. Rather, these are eternal structures created by and for an eternal action, an action that remains present even when the building is empty of its people, because it is separable neither from the people who worship there, nor the God whose action the building and people inhabit. (106) 

Then he asks the provocative question: “If worship occurs in a space that conveys temporariness, is the worshipper inclined by the space to treat the liturgical action as temporary?... A utilitarian space breeds a utilitarian liturgy” (107).

After a fascinating analysis of tools, economics, and alienation from the process of production (it would no doubt be too Marxist for some, but it seemed to me spot-on, in the vein of William Cavanaugh), Daniel returns to his main theme, this time weaving in a metaphor from viticulture:

Terroir in French has to do specifically with wine making, yet in a deeply cultural sense of the taste of a place, gout de terroir. For this reason, it is actually illegal to label a wine with the name Burgundy if it is not from Burgundy, France. Burgundy is at once the wine and the place; the two are inseparable. The gout de terroir draws the deep connection that the soil and the hands that work it are inseparable from the taste of the wine. In other words, the wine — its fullness of taste and heightening of the senses — cannot be separated from any of the environmental circumstances within which it is produced.
          In like manner, Christian liturgy is inseparable from the space and people intervolved in the action, all of which are intervolved in what we might call the grammar of God. We might even go so far as to call it the gout de Dieu, as it is in, by, and through the Eucharistic space that the worshipper learns what it means to taste and see that the Lord is good. The taste of the place, the smell, the touch, the sights and sounds of the kyriake oikia are all a language that conditions perception in the worshipper as she is spoken into being through them and called to attention by them, as the unspoken language demands not words but, perhaps, silence. (118-19) 

We must continue to develop such tools of analysis for explaining why our traditional church designs are objectively superior and necessary, and cannot be written off as habitual and sentimental models to which we are lazily attached and for which we ought to find (or be content with) “modern” substitutes. If Christ the Liturgy is correct in its argumentation, there can be serious negative psychological and spiritual effects of bad church architecture — and this is before we even broach more properly theological and liturgical questions.

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