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Sacred Moves Uptown

Jan. 29, 2016

Exploring the special considerations it takes to build spiritual centers in the middle of the urban sprawl.

No matter how long cities have been around, they have a way of feeling new. The hustle and bustle, the changing storefronts, and the way nothing seems to hold still for long. But even in the newest of new urban landscapes, some of the oldest organizations—churches, temples, and other worship centers—find a home.

Rooting new churches into city spaces isn’t without its special considerations though, and no one knows that better
than Timothy Eckersley of Gertler & Wente Architects LLP (www.gwarch.com). He specializes in helping parishes find their place, and offers a few tips.

new churches in urban contexts
Congregations that want to build new churches in urban centers fall into two categories: those that already have property and those that do not.

The more common type is the former and these congregations can either be expanding or shrinking. The congregation needs first to decide whether to renovate their existing church, or to sell up and move to a new location.

A big factor in this decision is how parishioners get to church. In dense inner cities with good public transportation, parking is not required (and often actively discouraged). But in newer, car-based cities, parking becomes a critical factor in selecting a site.

Sometimes existing churches are outdated for their present needs or the congregation is shrinking, but the church is sitting on valuable land with unused zoning potential. In this case there may be an opportunity to develop a mixed-use building with an updated church on the same site.

There is nothing new about this—for example, Calvary Baptist Church on W 57th Street in Manhattan (a major thoroughfare) redeveloped its site in 1929 with a 16-story hotel constructed directly above a new church. A complication is that church buildings are rightly cherished by their local communities and are often landmarked in historic districts, which can produce a paradox in which a diminished congregation is responsible for a structure it can no longer afford but cannot alter.

The second category entails newly established congregations that have the resources to build a new church in the relatively expensive real estate markets of inner cities (unless this is done at the scale of a storefront church). Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan is an example. This church was able to purchase a 100-year-old parking garage in an established neighborhood that was not an attractive proposition for typical development. More typically, new congregations build churches on suburban sites that can attract from a wide catchment area of residential neighborhoods.

how new urban churches fit into cities
Many congregations that want to build a new church do not want to look like a traditional church. Part of their motivation for building is to attract people who might never consider “going to church.” They want their church to appear as an ordinary building that is welcoming and non-threatening, a place that makes itself easy to enter and take that first step.

The concept is to create a neutral “third space” that allows the community to gather beyond the “first space” of home and the “second space” of work. For example, at Redeemer Presbyterian Church a big inviting glazed entrance opens up the lobby directly to the street. At ChristChurch Presbyterian (above), a new site in Atlanta, a small-scale public open space at a busy corner acts as a welcoming gesture and mediates between the active street and quiet calm of the sanctuary. A coffee shop opens off the courtyard.


symbolism on the exterior
Even though some new churches may have more modest ambitions than traditional churches—in that they do not attempt to present themselves as major markers in their neighborhoods—they do need to distinguish themselves architecturally. The application of symbolism on the exterior is a matter for individual churches, but the use of a cross is in itself a transforming addition to a facade.

Traditional churches present entirely closed exteriors—in keeping with the idea of acting as welcoming, contemporary spaces, newer designs allow the option of opening up the sanctuary with direct connections from the inside to the outside.

flexible vs. sacred spaces
Congregations, in one respect, are no different from other groups that commission new buildings. There is a common desire to make the best use of their real estate investment. As the sanctuary can go underused during

the week, it is frequently seen as a multipurpose hall that can serve gatherings aside from worship services alone. It can host annual dinners and dances, meetings and seminars, and theatrical and musical performances. Sometimes room dividers are introduced to create smaller spaces for classrooms or after-service get-togethers.

To allow this flexibility, flat floors and movable seats have to be used, rather than raked fixed seating. But building in flexibility comes with its own disadvantages. Movable seats and partitions give the space a temporary feel that can dilute the meditative experience. In addition, movable seating is less efficient than pews in terms of providing the greatest density of seating. While pews can be seen as old-fashioned, in one way they are more adaptable than seats: by accommodating people of different sizes and making it easier to squeeze in.

Movable seats have to be stackable, which puts limits on their appearance, and the storage of the seats outside the sanctuary consumes a large floor area. To maximize flexibility, this storage should be directly accessible from the sanctuary and can therefore occupy valuable floor space on the main level of the building.

Another significant disadvantage to the flexibility approach is that sight lines in a flat-floored room are inferior to those with a raked floor. For a flat floor the dais has to be raised higher, which mitigates the idea of a close relationship between the congregation and the clergy. A high dais also creates awkward sight lines for those in the front rows.
On the other hand, the simple lines created by pews reinforce the architecture and set a tone of material simplicity that can be used throughout the furnishings and finishes within the room.

ancillary functions
When building new churches, congregations often want a lot more than a sanctuary. The aim is to create a home away from home that caters for the whole family. This is a critical way in which congregations attract new members, particularly younger generations and families.


There is a need for daycare during services, facilities for child and teen services, as well as adult classrooms and a multipurpose hall in order to foster fellowship and belonging. Parish offices may also be part of the project, as well as special spaces such as art galleries or outreach programs for the homeless. Of special importance are spaces in the building that encourage casual interaction before and after services.

These functions can often take up more floor area than the sanctuary, opening potential for making the classroom spaces multi-functional with operable partitions to accommodate sports and choir practice. Consideration should be given to designing these spaces so that they can host other organizations. For example, at Redeemer the classrooms are used by a school during the weekdays.

Space utilization can be maximized in other ways. At Manhattan’s Oversea Chinese Mission, a church that needed to make better use of its existing building, we designed three separate sanctuaries on three floors, and they can be used simultaneously by linking together with a central audio-visual system.

The three spaces all have different characteristics, similar to how services are conducted in three languages at this location. The ground floor was set up as a chapel and is used for formal gatherings such as baptisms and weddings, and movable seating supports bazaars, parties, and classrooms with an operable partition. The second-floor sanctuary is the spiritual heart of the church and has fixed pews in a radial plan. The space on the third floor is simple and features robust finishes and lighting. It is used for overflow attendance, children’s’ play space, and classrooms.

client organization
Churches are made up of big groups that have a depth of valuable experiences but sometimes competing agendas. For the building project to go smoothly, strong internal leadership is a must, and different church committees must be willing to delegate to one or two representatives who communicate directly with the architect and contractor.

During the programming stage, the architect can help to guide the whole church community toward consensus. All parties need to have the confidence to buy into that agreement as the guiding route map for the rest of the project. Based on that consensus, a design is developed to be presented to the whole congregation.

Many congregations have a history that should be acknowledged in their new buildings. Key objects and relics, stained glass, or other artwork can be sensitively integrated into the design of a new church, thereby maintaining a sense of continuity. For example, parish churches in England are containers of local history almost as much as they are churches.

Thoughtful design and engaging discussions parties will ensure new churches honor their pasts while always looking toward the future.

Timothy Eckersley is the senior associate at Gertler & Wente Architects. He received his MA and Diploma of Architecture from the University of Cambridge, has served as instructor at the CUNY NYC Technical College, and is a visiting critic at the NY School of Interior Design. He has worked in London, Hong Kong, and New York. His work has ranged from commercial to higher education and industrial projects, with particular expertise in the design of new churches.

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