Tag Archives: The Wharf

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).

Through Many Dangers, Toils and Snares: Reflections on our new church

Riverside_new_building

Riverside Baptist Church began as Island Baptist Church in 1857.  Eventually, it outgrew that humble wooden dwelling and built a stone edifice after the Civil War and renamed themselves Fifth Baptist Church.  Then one hundred years later, urban renewal razed that building and other churches in SW and they built a contemporary and modest church on the corner of 7th, I and Maine Avenue. They also renamed themselves to Riverside Baptist Church.  There is that verse from Amazing Grace that rings true for this journey, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares/I have already come;/’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,/ and grace will lead me home.”

We have been working hard for several years now in an effort to secure the future of our beloved church.  When we started, we wanted to secure Riverside financially by creating an endowment; we wanted to remain in SW, never having any desire to move out of the city; we wanted to build an iconic building, modest and yet beautiful.  We are on the precipice of completing this.  Having won the unanimous affirmation of the Zoning Commission and worked with innumerable agencies and groups, we are poised to move forward.  Our architect, Philip Renfrow, and his team have designed an iconic building and that design continues at this point to be tweaked.  I would like to share my thoughts about the church building that will replace our current sanctuary while at the same time reminding you that our primary goal has been to establish an endowment to safeguard the church over the coming next decades.

Our church will be the approximate square footage of our current building but will be comprised of two floors. The lower floor will find a fellowship hall that can be used for meetings, lectures, classes and overflow for special events in the sanctuary.  It will have our receptionist office, an archives area and a meeting room for deacons and trustees.  A caterer’s kitchen will also be located there along with restrooms.  An elevator from the garage will bring people up to that floor and to the sanctuary (the sanctuary will also be accessible by a stairwell in the atrium level).  Outside, the building will have an undulating roof and metal screen along the front of the building, all of which evoke themes of water. This is an important theme to us as Baptists, since we immerse people when we baptize, and it is a great theme in the bible (we recall Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea, Joshua led them across the Jordan River, and the ancient Church likened itself to an ark with Christ as our Captain).  Indeed, one of the stained glass windows in our current sanctuary depicts an anchor.  On the sidewalk along the front entrance will be inscribed an anchor cross.  The outside also will have a “bell tower” with a cross and inside of that will be a digital carillon so we can call the community to prayer and play various hymns and songs.  Stained glass (not all of the glass) will be placed along that front wall and then on the 7th Street side, a slip of stained glass will ornament the stone wall, stones which echo the materials of our current building.  Inside, the theme of water will continue with a dramatic placement of our baptistery in the floor of the sanctuary. Currently, our baptistery is behind the chancel and above, totally out of sight and mind.  With this placement, the faithful will always see reminders of the two ordinances of the Baptist Church (and indeed of Christian life):  baptism and communion. The communion table will be center with a pulpit. The cross that now hangs in our baptistery (in honor of Anwar Trask) will be suspended behind the chancel area and center.  The inside will be warm and austere (this is quite in keeping with Baptist theology which is aniconic, that is, without images in deference to the first commandment).  Adjoining the sanctuary and standing between the church and Apartments will be a small “garden” that will provide a contemplative space even as it provides a green space between our two buildings. This will be solely for  the church’s use.

There is much left to do.  We will make decisions in the coming months about materials and some of those decisions will be predicated on our commitment to keeping the endowment intact. Our goal has never been to create a mega-church or use all our money on the building itself. We want to build an iconic church with a secure financial future. We are about to cross the Jordan River of our dreams and plans and into the promised land of our future. May God endow us with courage, faith, hope and love.

~Pastor Bledsoe

Riverside_new_building_profile

Calculation of Presence, the ANC and Riverside Church

chalice_SalvadorHow does one  go about calculating presence?  By ‘presence’ I mean the actual appearance of someone into the equation of any group, be it your office, your dinner outing, a family reunion, and yes, a church.

And I’m not talking about—or at least I don’t want to talk about—the drunk uncle at the family reunion.  That is a kind of obvious and negative ledger sheet with which we are all familiar.  We have all said at some point in our lives (even in elementary school when deciding at which lunch table to sit), “I hope so-and-so doesn’t show up, sit down, come along.”

Let’s focus for the moment, or moments it takes to read this, upon the positive.  We have also said things like, “I am so glad s/he was there. What a difference s/he makes.”  Someone’s presence livens up a room, fills a room with light, replaces sadness with joy or hands out courage and hope in large bowls.  Calculating presence is an inexact art but we all calculate every day how someone’s presence in our lives makes a measurable difference for how we think, feel and act.

This holds true for institutions in our communities as well.  I recall not too long ago how a particular club along what is now called “The Wharf” impacted our community in Southwest. Suddenly it seemed we had more trash littering the parking lot of our church and streets, drunks sleeping in cars on the church lot, and assorted other behaviors we need not list here.  The neighborhood was revolted by that institution’s careless regard of others.  We expect more from one another and we calculate presence by how not only an institution appears on a corner, but how they deepen our humanity and raise our sights by calling us to noble ideas and actions.

This week and week-end, calculate your presence.  Consider how you individually bring light and hope into a group; ponder how you raise the sights of others, deepen the humanity of others.  The amazing thing about that kind of presence is this—while giving your life away in kindness and service to others you yourself are deepened and ennobled in the process.

Monday of next week, the ANC will address our church’s plans for the future as we attempt to do well by those who preceded us by securing this institution for those who will come after us.  The ANC commissioners will be calculating our presence as it were. One would hope such calculation goes beyond capitalist ledger sheets like how many burgers did you sell this week or how many widgets do you have in your widget piggy bank?  Instead, if the calculation of presence is predicated upon the deepening of humanity, the luminosity of wisdom and love, then we stand a chance of being understood.  Our little church on this corner of Southwest has had a great voice for exactly these kinds of values. We speak up for the inclusion of all, for the dignity and humanity of all, for justice and peace.  We cry out for these values but we also take actions to implement those values in our lives.

Were you to stand across the street where the Wharf is currently a kind of desolation row (and it will be exciting to watch as desolation is transformed into a wonderful intersection of human discourse and concourse), and if you looked across the street at our corner, I believe you could see not a building but a light.  On any given Sunday this is what we hand out:  light and salt, seeds of hope and empowerment that in turn transform our community, our work places and our lives.  ~See you Sunday.