The American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase; Form follows function.
"It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human, and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law."
Louis Sullivan 1896
Sullivan is the creator of the modern skyscraper that started popping up in the growing large industrial cities in America in the late 19th century. The great improvements in steel and also skeletal design at that time fueled the growth in popularity of the skyscraper.
A skyscraper is a good example where function (driven by the need to go vertical as cities grew) was a strong driving factor in the design of buildings in that era.
As we look at our church buildings, what is driving the design form or function?
A modern-day example of form winning out is the Crystal Cathedral (now owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in Garden Grove, Orange County, California.
Completed in 1981 it was touted as the largest glass building in the world. The Cathedral was known for its terrible acoustics. The initial $1.2 million sound system installed at the construction of the building was completely unintelligible. The system was 2,800 pew back speakers each row on a digital delay. Three crystal clusters (custom built speaker clusters) also provided coverage. Altec horns were added in the ceiling grid to get better frequency response.
However time and phase was not addressed, thus the sound was unintelligible. The nearly 3,000 speakers were eventually replaced by 11 speakers that created a system intelligible enough to last the next 18 years. But, it was still not a great place to hear a sermon because of the acoustics of the building.
A modern day example of function leading the way is the trend over the last decade to build black box theater type of worship centers.
In general, they are designed to be acoustically very dead, the ceilings are painted black and as the antitheses of the Crystal Cathedral there are no windows. These spaces were designed specifically to do production style of worship. The dead acoustics allows for a studio like sound from the worship band. The controlled lighting and video presentation provides the feeling of a concert.
As inspiring as the Crystal Cathedral was to look at, the black box theater style of worship space screams forget about the building watch only what is happening on the stage.
The two extreme examples above show that when the scale is tipped to heavily to either form or function there are great tradeoffs that end up happening.
My goal is not to say that the Crystal Cathedral or the Black box style of worship center is bad. Rather my goal is say that both form and function need to be equal partners, often at great tension with each other that need to be brought together harmoniously to create great design.
How can form and function translate to good design at your church?
1. Traffic flow inside and outside
I have a friend who writes a blog and basically makes a living online. He talks all the time about making interactions with his customers as frictionless as possible. He posts multiple places, uses multiple social media channels and does direct email.
His reason is to make it as easy as possible for each person to receive and engage with his content. Traffic flow should be looked at in the same way.
How are you providing the easiest way for your attendees to get in and around your building? Have you ever just studied your traffic flow on a Sunday? Often some minor changes to a building or some signage updates can greatly improve the traffic flow.
2. Climate, heating and air conditioning
If your attendees are not comfortable it is difficult for them to fully engage.
Do you have someone who is monitoring the climate control system? They should be looking at objective data, temperature and humidity. Everybody has their own comfort zone regarding temperature so the best thing to do is pick a standard and then stick to it.
If you determine temperature off how someone feels on a given service that person may have a cold and thus turn up the heat to try to create comfort for themselves. At the same time this puts many other into discomfort. The key is consistency. With consistency people can choose what they wear knowing that they will be comfortable at a service.
A person that I know brings a sweater every Sunday (even in the summer) they know sometimes it's a little too cold for them so they come prepared.
One other note you should check your system every 4-6 months. I suggest doing it at the change of the seasons. Check to make sure the system if performing optimally also check the temperature in multiple different spots in the room to make sure the temperature is uniform throughout the space.
3. Sound (lobby noise and sanctuary sound)
I argue that one of the most important parts (if not the most important) is sound.
This includes background noise in the sanctuary and lobby. If people cannot hold a conversation in the lobby because of all the noise created by other people having conversations, consider getting some acoustical treatment to help deaden the sound.
One of the main social functions of church is that people get the opportunity to talk to friends and meet new ones, so create a space that helps make those conversations comfortable.
I also argue that the spoken word is the most important element of a worship service. A poor performing sound system where people need to strain to hear, or like the original system at the crystal cathedral where you could not understand what was being said makes people uncomfortable and frustrated.
What are you doing to bring elements of beauty into your space, indoors and outdoors? Take a fresh look and walk around in and around your building. Would painting an accent wall or adding a piece of art bring beauty? How about planting some flowers around the entrance and trimming the bushes well you are at it?
A question I ask myself as I visit and consult with churches is; does this space feel institutional or warm and inviting?
Then the important follow up question, Why? Color, furniture placement, plants and many other things factor into the feeling a space gives. What are the things of beauty in your space? What could you change to make the space inviting?
Along the same lines as making the space feel inviting, what causes engagement in your space? I have seen artwork bring engagement as well as beauty. People stopping to view a piece of art and reflecting on its meaning.
Architecture can also do this. Is there anything on the exterior of your building that engages people? A recent church I worked with was looking for a new home, the building that they chose to purchase was purchased impart because the industrial look of the building fit well with their brand.
We attend church to have an extraordinary experience. I am not talking about the cool light show and production. The point is the overall experience should not be like our ordinary daily experience.
A building has a personality, it invokes emotion from those who come into contact with it. Is the personality of your building uplifting? Do people sense and see something out of everyday ordinary life that lifts their spirit?
Yes, Sullivan is correct when he says the form follows function. The building needs to work well and suit the needs of the congregation. It also should point us to our creator with beauty and form.
I contend that good design involves form and function working together to create an extraordinary experience.