Tag Archives: church architecture

An Archetype of Architecture: Building a church at the Threshold of the DC Wharf

Riverside_render_2018

July 8.2017

At this point in time along Maine Avenue, the large blocks of the rebuilding of The Wharf are in place and each building is a self-contained block of stone, brick, masonry and glazing that ripples the landscape along the avenue.  And each block is interwoven with the other, not only in physical ways so that views and rooftop outlooks and lanes of sight are created; so that sidewalks and waterways guide people to places like restaurants and auditoriums; but a synergy has been intentionally designed for the commerce of products and ideas and relationships.  Where does our “little” church on the corner come into play with what appears mammoth in contrast to the structure we are building?  In a sentence: our church is a linchpin at the gateway located at the center of the entire DC Wharf.

That sounds like exaggeration, mere hyperbole, but listen to the Swiss architect, Mario Botta, in an interview where he said, “Yes, the church is the archetype of architecture.”  That is quite a statement!  He amplifies by saying, “When you go into a church, you have to look around. It’s not a theater where you wait for something to happen. When you enter a church, you are already part of what has transpired and will transpire there.  This is extraordinary.”

Botta struggles here to define what it is that is archetypal about church architecture and strips away function in order to get to the ground of sacred space.  He explained, “Where the church is located, the place of the faithful, is much more important than its function… The church preserved sacredness in its very location. This sense of the sacred cannot be found in a bank, a library, or a theater.”  I would quibble with the Swiss architect about function and what happens in a church and even he cannot avoid this by his use of the word, transpire (I think, in other words, that we share more with theater than he might admit).  But I very much believe that what he is getting at is a primal threshold or what historians of religion would call a “liminal” space that bridges the commercial to the communal.  Where is Riverside located within the matrix of The Wharf?

Riverside Baptist Church will stand (as it stood previously) at the corner of the confluence of three roads:  I Street, 7th Street and Maine Avenue.  We anchor an intersection of commerce and community.  We are the sacred threshold at multiple thresholds of a significant development directly across from us, the DC Wharf, where thousands will live, shop, commune and otherwise navigate their lives.

When our carillon rings out on Reformation Sunday 2018 for our first worship service in our new sanctuary, it will ring a sacred presence into the fray and fog of events and time, alerting passersby that a threshold to sacred space lies within walking and hearing distance.  Their gaze will be met by an archetypal architectural expression, carefully undertaken by our architect, Phillip Renfrow, and his team.  There on that corner, a church will be nestled among larger and even grandiose buildings and far from being overshadowed, those buildings—if you have an eye like Mario Botta’s—become a kind of bezel setting for this jewel of a church. Its curved roofline, a wave that gestures toward not just the nearby Tidal Basin but it gestures biblical themes of Flood, Exodus and Baptism.  The perforated metal, waved screen that ebbs across the large curtain glass,  glints light and courses energy both in and through the sanctuary but also outwardly as it joins with stained glass and stone from the previous church structure. Its religious symbology subtle and nuanced, nonetheless it hoists upon that corner a flag of faith, a church devoted to peace and justice, fond of its past but fonder still of its future.
C lick here for a brief video of architectural renderings.

 

Riverside Baptist Church, DC

The Wharf, A Church, Art and Religion

In a 1950 interview, Henri Matisse claimed that “all art worthy of the name is religious.”  [Judith Dupre, Churches]   I like that statement for its truth and its provocation, since it provokes both artist and religious practitioner.

As I ponder the architectural renderings of our church by our architect, Philip Renfrow, I wonder, can we flip the quote by Matisse and gain any further insights?  Like this, “all religion worthy of the name is artistic.”

What would we be saying by such a statement?  At its most basic and simplest, we would be saying that both art and religion reach for the same invisible horizon and render that invisible horizon by symbolic forms and expression.  It is interesting to hear what Matisse wrote to his friend, a nurse and then nun with whom he stayed in contact, “‘I live with my forces directed towards that same spiritual horizon,’ he wrote. ‘My effort differs from yours only in appearance.’”  [“Station to Station,” The Architectural Review, 2 Nov 2013]

There are remarkable resonances between art and religion, artists and faith practitioners.  Of course, there are great tensions that dwell within the nexus of these two arenas of human expression and interaction, not the least of which is a history of how religion has used art and manipulated artists along with aniconic proscriptions within the great monotheistic traditions to avoid making images of the Holy One.  We can’t explore these resonances and tensions in a blog post but we can tip our hat to them and recognize there are many dynamics involved in something as seemingly straightforward as “building a church.”  By the way, I have had the pleasure of exploring some of these ideas with Ian at Blind Whino where artists and their works inhabit the historic building of what was Friendship Baptist Church.  If there is a place in Southwest that takes us immediately to this epicenter of art and religion, then it is here. That building is literally a canvas for mural artists but one might ponder how that religious canvas and the thresholds that lead upstairs to what was a sanctuary provide a dialogical moment for the artist and faith practitioner as they pursue the invisible horizon of existence and cosmos.

As I survey Maine Avenue at this moment, with the large apartment buildings and hotels being erected just across the street from our corner, I wonder about the relationship artistically to those buildings and our church, soon to be built (God willing) sometime in late 2018.  What will the scale and size of our church say in response to these large structures?  How does the interplay of business, commerce, and spiritual quest play out? Fundamentally, it will be expressed architecturally.  Our church—quite small by comparison to everything around it—will be gesturing in symbols some enduring values of the human spirit.  As Judith Dupre writes in her book, Churches, “A church embodies, in its purest form, the fundamental elements of architecture: light, threshold, and the concept of passage both physical and metaphysical.”

Riverside Baptist Church will be a twinkling word in what is being spoken along Maine Avenue, 7th and I Streets.  We’ll chime our presence into the Wharf and the warp and woof of that interplay between the various aspects of human expression. And if we are at all fortunate, we will discover the deeper bonds of our shared humanity. At the corner gateway of The Wharf along 7th and Maine Ave., there will be a threshold  that crosses into the Sacred and that liminal passage will be artistically rendered by stone, light and artistic renderings carefully expressed.  I can’t wait!  Until then,

~See you on Sunday at the Jefferson Middle School auditorium

Riverside_1018

A Church Is A Theater Is A Church Is A …

The Swiss architect, Mario Botta, who designed Évry Cathedral, spoke about churches and their design in an interview with Judith Dupre:

It’s a bit like theater. The theater is also for those who don’t go to the theater because it’s a place of collective imagination. It’s a place where people go to buy a ticket to Dream. People think, “My city is rich because it has a theater-even if I don’t go to the theater.”   A church is a rich addition to a city, even for those who don’t go to church. It becomes a human institution like a library, bank, stadium.

There is so much to appreciate in this statement!  Religion and the arts have always been hand-in-glove.  Indeed, the function of roles, art, performance and yes, that idea of “collective imagination” are all so spot on and insightful.  I also like his willingness to speak to the larger culture that does not “go to church,” suggesting–no, instructing–that a city is enriched by the presence of a church in its midst.  Frankly, this is something that percolates in conversations with Monty Hoffman when we talk about the design and construction of our new building, arriving in the Fall of 2018.  Charged with the development of the entire Wharf, he is a person who has both an historic regard for and appreciation for the presence of a church (indeed churches) within the matrix of what is being created along the Tidal Basin.  Whether or not you attend a church, a church can be a human institution that raises the quotient of humane and intellectual discourse in a community.  At least it should and one would hope churches and their architects would aspire to such. We at Riverside certainly do so and our architect, Philip Renfrow of GBR, has melded a rich theological appreciation with a keen modernist/post-modern vocabulary in the sanctuary his team has designed for us.

Arena Stage is a nearby marvel and beautiful landmark in our SW community.  It has been and continues to be a place where one “buys a ticket in order to dream a while.” We at Riverside are not so different.  We are about to provide a beautiful and evocative space of collective imagination where people enter for a station of rest and peace, to dream of justice and mercy in the light of God’s mercy and love.

Riverside Baptist Church, DC

Architectural rendering of Riverside Baptist Church, DC, arriving Fall 2018

~See you Sunday (meanwhile, we are in a middle school auditorium and very grateful to Jefferson and DCPS for allowing us to rent their space where, in an auditorium with a stage, we transform a theater into a church inside a school).