In many ways Churches are very unique buildings.
They need to be designed to meet a myriad of functions. From private one on one counseling, to corporate worship, a church building has many activities that take place. Churches are also unique in that there are a plethora of stakeholders as well. From the staff to the constituents, many people are invested in both being financially tied to the building as well as users of the space.
Back when I was in college and pursuing a business degree, facilities management was a new discipline being offered. I took of a number of facilities classes as I was intrigued by how buildings and space influence and support business in tangible and intangible ways. I eventually decided on getting my general business degree (this was after achieving my broadcasting degree) but my intrigue and love for facilities would always be somehow interwoven through my career.
In my days as a technical director at a mega church, that intersection was primarily on Sunday mornings as I made use of AVL (audio/video/lighting) systems to help support and enhance worship. As I moved on to AVL system design and sales I learned how to integrate these systems in what seemed like a constant battle between form and function. Today as I work in business development for a design build firm in essence my world revolves around buildings.
As I look at the uniqueness of a church building 5 important things come to mind.
I remember it like it was yesterday sitting in a facilities class in college with the professor going over a handout/spreadsheet (computer spreadsheets were new and there were no projectors in the classroom, just whiteboards) on how to determine what was needed for an office space. To this day I have a love hate relationship with spreadsheets. They provide great data but I believe can be overused to manipulate that data to get the outcome you desire.
The professor emphatically repeated throughout his lecture/rant that form follows function. The phrase "form follows function" according to Wikipedia is attributed to Louis Sullivan. I believe that Sullivan's was conveying the idea "form follows function”, as opposed to “form follows precedent”. In other words what the building is going to be used for, in Sullivan's case a skyscraper, required a different form than what was being currently used in construction.
However, what I took my professors lecture/rant to mean was, who cares what it looks like as long as it is efficient. I have seen many times, where an architect will have an inspired vision and a desire to create beauty in his design, only to have a committee shoot his idea down calling it too grand, even ostentatious. The committee would always seem to come back to function alone as the driving factor. Often a beautiful design was squelched even before price or feasibility came into the equation.
Lest you think I long for gaudy, ornate and the somewhat cold architecture of the past. I believe a church building should somehow reflect tradition as well as contemporary culture and at the same time be inspiring and inviting. Not an easy task, but it can be accomplished.
If the space is not useable for its intended purpose it is useless. For some reason it always seems to be that acoustics are the thing that is consistently overlooked. The results usually end up on the opposing ends of the spectrum. They either seem to be overly reverberant or exceptionally dead. There never seems to be a healthy balance where congregational singing is carried well and at the same time have the programming (music and the spoken word) work well.
As Sullivan stated, the true form of a building is dictated by the function. This I agree on. After all, if you want to create an intimate space that seats 1,000 people with the furthest seat 60' away from the platform, a great deal of the form has been determined. Most likely it will need to be a wide seating area that requires a balcony. It could also be in the round or steeply raked seating like a movie theater. The point is that function obviously has a huge impact on form.
I would argue and I am sure you agree that the function does not have to impact the beauty of the space and in common use of the phrase "form follows function" I see beauty as the "form" that everyone seems all too eager to sacrifice on.
Another often used phrase is, "The Church is really the people". Yes biblically and hopefully practically this is true. The church building is really just a place where we gather together as believer (and no believers) to explore and grow in our faith and in community together.
Where the people part of the equation comes in for me is twofold. First is the space inviting and inspiring? Secondly the practical side, do we all fit comfortably in the space and is it functional, enough bathrooms, appropriate heating cooling, lighting to make the space comfortable.
The best experiences I have had at church usually happened because the building supported people in the proper way. It was not too warm or cold, the seat was comfortable, all the tech worked without creating distraction and the bathroom was easy to find, it was clean and also I did not have to wait in line out into the hall before using it!
So when a building functions well and supports people properly it frees us up to concentrate on the purpose that we are there for.
My wife recently made a comment about a church we were recently at. She said something to the effect of it being a nice place, but if felt like a worn-out old shoe. I interpreted that to mean it was comfortable, but looked well-worn. Perhaps it was the outdated color scheme, or maybe the numerous nicks in the drywall or all the stains in the carpet. Whatever it wa,s it gave my wife a mediocre feeling about the church.
Ye,s perception matters, yes, our surroundings matter and, yes, age of the building shouldn't matter.
I have been in buildings less than a year old that screamed mediocrity, just because they were not well-maintained. Simple things, like a door not working properly, or a picture or signage that is crooked on the wall or the aforementioned stains in the carpet - all said in a subtle way, we don't care.
I have also been in century-old buildings that are inspiring. The heating and cooling was up to date, the technology fit the space and worked well, and there were no dreaded stains in the carpet or evidence of great wear to be found. Building that are well maintained convey a message of overall excellence.
People notice things and quickly form opinions. What are people's perception and opinions of your building?
With almost every project I am involved in, purpose has to continually be driven to the forefront. As humans our personal interests become what is important, we push for things we want. Also, it becomes so easy to get focused on the process and the actual building, that we forget why we are doing it. By understanding and keeping purpose the primary factor, helps bring clarity and also can keep us from getting hung up in the details.
Ask yourself these questions:
Is your building currently serving your needs?
Do you need to look at the form and function?
Does your building project excellence or an old worn-out shoe?
Do you know and understand the purpose of your building?
Take a fresh look at your building, or an eyes-wide-open view of a proposed building that you are planning. Work to make sure that it's not just functional, but will be a facility of excellence which has the capacity to inspire, and brings beauty to all those who enter it’s doors.