New capital grants available for historic churches

Repairs, historic, grants, fundingEmmanuel Baptist Church in Albany, NY has been a client of Foresight Architects for over twenty years. During that period of time, they have done an amazing job of restoring their beautiful High Victorian Gothic Revival church built in 1871. Much of the work has been accomplished through grants – most notably the Sacred Sites Program of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Now churches in other states will have similar opportunities.

A new partnership between Partners for Sacred Places and the National Trust for Historic Preservation will provide up to $10 million in capital and development grants to 50 congregations of diverse faiths over the next four years. After their initial selection, congregations receive special planning grants, customized consulting services from Partners staff, and additional training.

While the 14 congregations for 2016-2017 have already been selected, applications are now being accepted for the next round of funding. Matching capital grants that range from $50,000 – $250,000 are being made available. Continue reading to see if your church is eligible.

Eligibility Requirements

  1. The property must be located within the United States or its territories.
  2. The property must have been originally built to be a house of worship, and owned by an active community of faith.
  3. The property must have architectural, cultural or historic value that is of regional or national significance, and be listed on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Special emphasis will be placed on sites that have had a prominent physical and/or historical place in the community.
  4. The property must be occupied by a congregation that is community minded and has a demonstrated interest in providing outreach ministries that benefit both members and nonmembers. Special emphasis will be placed on congregations that share space and partner with other nonprofit organizations, and plan to make the most of their building as an asset for community renewal and service.
  5. The property must have urgent repair needs including structural components, walls, roof, and/or other elements of the building envelope or mechanical systems that are integral to life safety. Projects that improve the usability or ADA accessibility of the property are also eligible. Also, renovation projects that make vacant or underused space usable for important community outreach are eligible.
  6. Anticipated projects must respect the historic character and materials of the building(s), and adhere to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.
  7. Projects must be able to raise matching funds at a 1:1 rate for grants of $50,000 to $99,999. Grants from $100,000 to $250,000 require matching funds of 2:1.
  8. The applicant must prove that is it not able to raise the total cost of the project from congregational membership/regular donor base alone.
  9. Grant funds are intended to support projects that are not yet completed. Therefore, reimbursements cannot be issued for any payments made prior to the date of the executed grant agreement.
  10. The applicant must be a religious congregation or closely affiliated nonprofit organization.
  11. The applicant must exhibit several signs of positive organizational health, including most or all of the following:
    1. Stable clergy and lay leadership that are in consensus around project goals
    2. Stable or growing membership
    3. Established partnerships with external entities
    4. If applicable, positive and supportive relationship to regional denominational office
    5. History of financial accountability and record-keeping
    6. Successful management of previous capital repair projects
    7. Positive maintenance ethic (need to define)
    8. The applicant must have been in existence for a minimum of three years prior to the date of application.
  12. The congregation must work with Partners for Sacred Places, which will provide customized technical assistance to all grantees, prior to disbursement of capital grants. Before they are awarded, recipients are required to:
    1. Develop a comprehensive building repair plan with an experienced, qualified building professional or team of professionals, normally including an architect
    2. Develop a realistic budget and timetable for completing the work
    3. Develop a realistic fundraising plan to meet project goals

Please note that the applicant is not required to have developed a repair plan, budget, timetable, or fundraising plan prior to application. However, if you would like assistance in assessing your capital needs for repairs or improved accessibility, please contact us. We would be happy to assist you with a Conditions Assessment or Master Plan.

The light of the new worship space at St. Joseph Church shines out

New worship space at St. Joseph Church by Foresight ArchitectsWe have been working with St. Joseph Church in Demarest since June of 2014. We recently completed the first phase of our work there: the construction of a new worship space, attached to the existing facility. This portion of the project was completed and dedicated just after Thanksgiving 2016. The overall goal of the project was to create a new worship space that adheres to the principals of the Second Vatican Council and meets the current and future needs of the parish.

Specific goals for the new worship space included:

  • Provide visibility for the church from Piermont Road.
  • Provide convenient access to the worship space from all parking areas.
  • If possible, incorporate patrimony from the Archdiocese of Newark for liturgical furnishings, stained glass or other artwork.
  • The architectural design shall pay homage to the traditions of the local church, the Carmelite tradition and the Korean Catholic tradition.
  • The design aesthetic of the new worship space shall compliment the design aesthetic of the current worship space.

Building Exterior

Providing visibility from Piermont Road was relatively simple to accomplish by siting the building within the view of the main entrance driveway. While the new worship space was limited to a 30-foot height by the local zoning ordinance, additional height was achieved by topping the roof with a 12-foot high gold cross. The new main entrance through what was formerly the back of the original building required some additional architectural treatment to make it a focal point once in the parking lot. A new portico adds a sense of entry, protects the entry doors from the weather, and provides a convenient drop-off area. This new entrance is centrally located to all the parking areas.

The new worship space consists of an octagonal form that rises from within a nearly square base. The walls that rise between the two volumes are entirely of glass. When viewed from the exterior, the glass octagonal volume that emerges from the sloped roof serves as a beacon to the neighborhood and the community, reflecting the words of Matthew 5:14-16:

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Light shines out at St. Joseph Church by Foresight ArchietctsThis is reflective of the parish mission statement, which calls for parishioners “to spread His message of salvation to all.”

New Worship Space

The Worship Space is designed to comfortably seat a total of 497 people—373 in pews, 128 in chairs and 6 wheelchair spaces. There is also space for an additional 65 chairs around the perimeter of the space for a total seating capacity of 562. The altar platform is located along a central axis. Seating wraps around three sides of the platform.

In addition to the glass walls of the octagon, fenestration consists of seven stained glass windows each on the east and west sides (depicting the first fourteen of the fifteen original mysteries of the Rosary) and small rose windows high on the east, west and north sides of the building featuring the Last Supper (behind the altar) and the marriage and anointing of St. Joseph. All of those windows are from Sacred Heart Church in Jersey City, NJ. The glass octagon walls bring daylight into the building. A special glass was used for the clerestory to reduce glare for worshipers.

Side view of new worship space at St. Joseph Church by Foresight ArchitectsAlthough we originally intended to use pews from Sacred Heart for seating and had planned the worship space seating to fit the pews, the committee later decided that they were not comfortable enough and chose new, upholstered pews in the same configuration.

We also incorporated the crucifix and the tabernacle from Sacred Heart Church in the final design. The parishioners selected statues of St. Francis of Assisi and Fr. Andrew Kim to pay homage to the traditions of the local church, the Carmelite tradition and the Korean Catholic tradition. All other liturgical furnishings, including the font, were designed and fabricated by Artsphere Consulting, LLC. The font bowl is made of 1/2″ thick glass and finished with a Celadon glaze. Although Celadon originated in China, production later spread to Korea, where the traditional color is the pale green-blue you see in the bowl.

New altar table and height-adjustable ambo in the new worship space at St. Joseph Church by Foresight ArchitectsPlease see the previous post for a video of the Dedication Mass. If you are in Northern New Jersey, feel free to stop by and visit the new worship space. It is almost always open for private prayer.


Dedication Mass at St. Joseph Church, Demarest

This video, shot by KCB, records the entire dedication Mass on Saturday, November 26, 2016. Please note that the poor image quality in the beginning is due to the low pre-Mass light levels and improves as the lighting is increased during the ceremony. The introduction is by the pastor, Rev. Jungsoo Kim.

The new worship space was the first phase of this addition and renovation project by Foresight Architects. The conversion of the original worship space into a Daily Chapel is currently underway.

Arts and Ecumenism Symposium

The year 2017 marks an incredible anniversary: the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. In the half millennium that has passed since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg, the Church universal has evolved from a body painfully divided, to one that together seeks true ecumenism through a host of expressions. The Mount Tabor Centre invites you to join in celebration of the unity that continues to grow in the Church through Reformanda 2017: a three-week exploration of ecumenism, art and architecture in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy in May 2017.

The focus of Reformanda 2017 will be a Symposium on “The Arts and Ecumenism: What Theology Risks in Artistic Creation,” to be held over three consecutive weekends in Paris, Strasbourg, and Florence, organized by Monsignor Timothy Verdon, Jérôme Cottin and Denis Villepelet. Msgr Verdon is a renowned author, art historian (PhD, Yale University), speaker, and director of the Cathedral Museum in Florence, Italy; Jérôme Cottin is a Professor on the Faculty for Protestant Theology at the University of Strasbourg, and Denis Villepelet is Director of the Higher Institute of Theology of the Arts and the Catholic Institute of Paris. Together these passionate experts have coordinated three fascinating weekends dedicated to the evolving visions of contemporary sacred art in the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions. The tour will also feature round table discussions during the Symposium, visits to studios of contemporary artists, private tours of museums and sites connected with the Reformation, and concerts by the world-class choir Gloriæ Dei Cantores.

Immerse yourself in the exploration of Reformanda 2017 – in the beautiful surroundings of Europe, and in the timely study and exploration of the arts and ecumenism over these past 500 years. Savor the details of the tour at, where you will find a complete tour brochure, including itinerary and registration form.

Beauty in Church Design

Church of Christ the King by Foresight ArchitectsOne of the things I’ve always enjoyed about designing churches is the fact that aesthetics are an important design criteria. While form usually follows function, as it should in most architecture, the expression of the form can range widely, from a simple metal box to an intricately detailed stone structure. Whereas the aesthetics are often determined strictly by budget in many other types of project (and are often given short shrift), church building committees have typically been just as concerned with the aesthetics as with the function of the building.

I should qualify that statement by saying that, in the past, it has mostly applied to mainline churches. Many of the more recent (last few decades) non-denominational churches have opted for very simple (and sometimes industrial-looking) buildings, based on the belief that money spent on “fancy” buildings is money diverted from more important things like programs and missions. The common belief was also that such an approach would make these facilities more appealing to the unchurched. But it seems like that is all starting to change.

A recent article in Worship Facilities magazine, featured the latest construction at North Coast Calvary Chapel in Carlsbad, CA. “We are good at catering to people who want to say, ‘yes’ to Jesus, but say, ‘no’ to the church” is the way senior pastor, Mark Foreman describes his church. I’d say that’s a pretty good description “unchurched”.

When the church began work on a master plan in the early 2000s, Foreman insisted on a Tuscan village design, to be characterized by whimsical layouts and a seemingly evolved mixture of colors and textures.

“Church architects have a great understanding of space usage in the interior, but exteriors CTK-Entrytend to look like something from Mars,” Foreman says. “Churches don’t know what they’re supposed to look like anymore. We wanted to be timeless.”

The article mentions the word “authentic” eight times. I’m not sure how a southern California campus in that is less than 20 years old that was designed to look like it was built over hundreds of years, with a design vocabulary borrowed from central Italy, conveys authenticity. However, I do think it is quite beautiful and for that I commend the pastor and the design team on a well-executed design. It looks like a very comfortable campus to spend time on.

Lest you think this is just one church going against the tide, you might be interested in this article from The Aspen Group’s blog. Apparently, recent research is showing that the popular belief that frugality in building design shows the community that the church cares about more important things than buildings may not be true at all. “It was surprising to find that the buildings that were judged by survey participants as the simplest, most austere, and least expensive were viewed as churches that are most concerned about themselves—not the community” states the researcher Matthew Niermann.

I had to smile when I read this article. Many years ago, our firm developed a statement on beauty in architecture that we include in many of our proposals. Here is an excerpt from that statement:

We believe that when it comes to works of human ingenuity rather than divine creation, architects have a significant responsibility to protect the aesthetic value of God’s creation through the design of thoughtful and beautiful buildings. We believe that the aesthetic aspects of buildings, particularly those built to last fifty to one hundred years, as most religious buildings are, should be given due consideration by our clients during the design phase.

As I said in the beginning of this post, I have been very fortunate to work mostly with church committees that share a similar belief. Consequently, our firm has an extensive portfolio of buildings designed to protect the aesthetic value of God’s creation. While the buildings we design can never equal the beauty of God’s creation, it has been a great pleasure doing our best to make a positive contribution to the built environment. I hope that, when you see the various projects on this blog, you will feel the same way.



Delmar church breaks ground for elevator addition

GroundbreakingConstruction has started on a new entrance with an elevator that will add full, unrestricted access to all areas of the First United Methodist Church of Delmar. A groundbreaking ceremony was held after worship services on May 22, 2016 for the addition. When completed, the addition will include a new entrance on the South side of the property, with access to the first floor level Fellowship Hall, the second floor church offices, classrooms, chapel and main sanctuary and a previously under-used third floor.

This project has been a 20-year goal of the congregation. Funded by church members, this $850,000 addition is the largest and final project in a series of capital campaigns begun in 2014. When completed in November, the new entrance and addition will update the appearance of the church when seen from Nathaniel Boulevard. Architectural services were provided by Foresight Architects. Construction is being performed by Rosch Brothers, Inc. of Latham.

Rendering of new elevator addition by Foresight Architects

Rendering of new elevator addition by Foresight Architects

Foresight started their relationship with the First United Methodist Church of Delmar back in 1998, when they provided technical design services for a major exterior repair project of the walls and roofs of the facility. In 2002, Foresight Architects was hired to prepare a Master Plan for the church, which led to four separate phases of construction: renovations to the sanctuary, renovations to the office and classroom areas, renovation of the Fellowship Hall and, finally, the entrance/elevator addition. We are always pleased when one of our Master Plans gets implemented over time, which is just the way we design them to work.

If your church is contemplating a variety of improvements and doesn’t know where to start, call us today for a free consultation so we can explain how our Master Plan process works.

Construction progresses at St. Joseph Church

Several of us at Foresight Architects have been very busy traveling back and forth to Demarest, NJ on a regular basis since last year to guide the construction process for the new worship space at St. Joseph Church. Over the past few weeks, most of the clay tile roofing has been installed on the upper roof.

St. Joseph Church addition under construction

St. Joseph Church addition under construction

The decision to use clay tile for the roof of the addition was based on a number of factors. The roof on the original building, built in the 1950’s, was still in excellent condition more than 50 years later. Of course, we wanted the roof of the addition to match the roof of the original building; however, a tile roof would be much more expensive than a typical asphalt shingle roof. We considered removing the existing tile roof and adding insulation and a new asphalt shingle roof. But when we ran the calculations, we found out that insulating the roof of the existing church would have a forty-year payback so it was probably not a wise investment of $60,000 or more.

Because the existing tile roof was only a little more than halfway through its 100-year life expectancy, it did not make sense to remove it if it was still working (which most of it was). Because of the high cost of removing and replacing the existing tile roof, we determined that the cost of providing a similar tile roof on the new church would be the same cost as removing all the existing tile and installing asphalt shingles throughout. Whereas asphalt shingles typically have a lifespan of around thirty years, the roof tiles have a 75-year warranty and often last 100 years or more. By saving the roof tiles from the portion of the building that would be demolished (which were slightly different than the tiles we could buy today), future repairs to the original would be less expensive, as the tiles would not have to be custom made for the repairs.

Fortunately, the same company that made the original roof tiles (and the vast majority of clay roof tiles sold in the last century or so) was still in business and still made a very similar product. It is their tiles that you see being installed in the photo.

Come back soon to see more progress photos!

Worship space seating – where do you stand?

Churches without seating

IFMany people are surprised when they walk into European churches and don’t see any pews. They wonder why they have been removed. Whenever I am doing a presentation on the history of church architecture, I explain that pews were a fourteenth century addition to church design. Often this is part of a discussion on whether chairs are an appropriate substitute for pews. This recent article from the Aspen Group takes a different tack and talks about this topic in light of being open to departing from tradition and being open to change (something always worth discussing when talking about church design).

The article contains several quotes from James and Susan White’s 1998 book “Church Architecture: Building and Renovating for Christian Worship“. Rather than just discuss the history of seating in worship spaces, the authors discuss the impact of adding seating, noting what I believe is probably the most important impact – the change from being active participants to passive spectators. He writes:

“In the late Middle Ages, the congregation sat down on the job and there was a drastic change in Christian worship—perhaps the most important in history. People, in effect, became custodians of individual spaces which they occupied throughout the service, and social distinctions made some spaces more privileged than others.”

The article also quotes from Adam Graber’s ebook, From Pews to Podcasts: What Technology Wants for the Church, which explores how technology has shaped, and continues to shape, the church throughout history. In Chapter Two, entitled “Churches Without Chairs”, he writes:

“Without chairs, they had been actively involved and engaged by moving along with each element of the service, but as they sat down they became passive viewers—spectators in an audience. The service became something to watch.”

This whole idea of whether the congregation should consist of spectators or active participants was clearly addressed, at least for the Roman Catholic Church, by the Second Vatican Council in the early sixties. In the first official document to come out of the Council, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states: “The Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations called for by the very nature of the liturgy.” (Par. 14)

Perhaps the Catholic Church was trying to regain something that had been lost over the centuries, with the increasing separation between the clergy and the laity. According to Ed Sövik‘s book Architecture for Worship, published in 1973, German architect Otto Bartning seemed to have had similar concerns some forty years before the Second Vatican Council. He had proposed that the long and narrow processional or axial plans of traditional church buildings were inappropriate to current Christian understanding.

Plan and elevation of Bartning's Stern kirche

Plan and elevation of Bartning’s Stern Kirche

“The proper view of the gathered congregation, he said, is that of a cohesive  community of clergy and laymen (all priests) whose members should be aware of their unity as the Body of Christ, the family of God, the household of believers. When they meet it is not as individuals at prayer, and not as a congregation of observers in attendance at a clerical ritual, but as a community acting together. …Bartning saw the circular room as the popular reflection of this understanding, for such an architectural shape not only symbolizes unity and coherence, but affectively (sic) encourages it. He made a model which he called “Stern Kirche” with altar at the center and a full ring of people about it. By now  this image has been built many times, and its general propriety as a formal expression is broadly accepted.” (page 31)

Another forty years have passed since this statement by Mr. Sovik (a man who is credited with profoundly influencing church design for over 50 years), and things seem to be coming full circle (no pun intended). Although many Catholic churches have indeed been designed to encourage full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations, many contemporary Catholic churches are moving away from that directive.

The Counter-movement

As an avid observer of church architecture, I am always watching to see what is changing. Of course, not all of it is good, but it is all worth observing. Although axial plan churches have continued to be built over the last forty or fifty years, they were becoming fairly uncommon – at least for new, Catholic churches. That is until around 1990, when two men – one an investigative reporter and the other an architecture professor – helped start a movement away from the church design trend that had developed over the previous thirty years.

Michael S. Rose

Michael S. Rose

The investigative reporter was a man named Michael S. Rose. According to his bio on, Mr. Rose “has illuminated a number of highly controversial issues in contemporary Catholicism, most notably the scandal surrounding unpopular remodeling of older Catholic churches and cathedrals across the U.S. His articles, editorials, and essays have appeared in venues such as Wall Street Journal, Catholic World Report, New Oxford Review, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Envoy, Adoremus Bulletin, National Catholic Register, The Wanderer, Lay Witness, A.D. 2000, Challenge, This Rock, and Catholic Dossier.” His two books, The Renovation Manipulation: The Church Counter-Renovation Handbook (published in January 2000) and Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again (published in 2001) tapped into the frustration many Catholics felt about the renovations of their historic, traditional churches. In the second book, he expands his critique of “wreckovations“, as he liked to call the renovations, to new church design. Here are the first two lines from the description on the Amazon page for this book:

“The problem with new-style churches isn’t just that they’re ugly – they actually distort the Faith and lead Catholics away from Catholicism.

So argues Michael S. Rose in these eye-opening pages, which banish forever the notion that lovers of traditional-style churches are motivated simply by taste or nostalgia.”

Duncan Stroik

Duncan Stroik

Ten years earlier, Duncan Stroik, Yale ’87 (M. Arch), joined the Notre Dame School of Architecture as a founding faculty member of the school’s classical program. In his academic work, Stroik has advocated beauty and tradition as the standards of architecture. In that same year Stroik founded his firm Duncan G. Stroik Architect LLC. His work continues the tradition of classical and Palladian architecture, also known as New Classical Architecture. In 1998, Professor Stroik founded the Institute for Sacred Architecture and the Sacred Architecture Journal as editor. The Institute for Sacred Architecture is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to a renewal of beauty in contemporary church design.

Both of these gentlemen seem to view a return to tradition as a return to beauty. While Mr. Rose has moved on from church architecture to other topics affecting the Catholic Church, Mr. Stroik has been extremely busy designing Roman Catholic houses of worship. A review of the portfolio on his website shows the New Classical church designs he and other firms like his are well known for. Wikipedia describes New Classical architecture as a contemporary movement in architecture that continues the practice of classical and traditional architecture. It is this focus on tradition that brings us back to the topic of church seating.

The Return to the Axial Plan

Despite the fact that they have only been around since the 14th century and did not and still do not exist in many early churches, seating in churches – particularly pews – are seen as part of a traditional design for a church. And arranging those pews along a long, central axis makes the church feel even more traditional. I would venture to say that the prototypical church to most people is a long, rectangular building with a raised area at one end with a pulpit or altar and rows of seats along a central aisle. I suppose that has to do with the preponderance of churches designed that way. I can easily understand why that is the first image to come to mind for most people. What is hard for me to understand is why architects are still building Catholic churches that way. Every principle of good liturgical design suggests that a long, rectangular building with rows of pews along an aisle is probably not the best solution. Yet they continue to be built, continue to be published and continue to win awards.

Floor Plan of Kericho's Sacred Heart Cathedral-click to enlarge

Floor Plan of Kericho’s Sacred Heart Cathedral-click to enlarge

The May issue of Architectural Record includes a section on Sacred Spaces, which includes two Catholic Churches, a mosque, a synagogue and a temple. The first Catholic Church, in Frommern, Germany, while small, does provide seating on three sides of the altar platform – most of it in fixed pews but some of it using moveable benches. The second Catholic Church – the new Kericho’s Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kenya – was designed by a firm with no previous experience in Catholic Church design. While the church has many redeeming qualities, to me, it seems that the layout is completely inappropriate for a Catholic African worshiping community. With 36 rows of pews, it would be virtually impossible for the back half of the church to feel any connection to the liturgical action, let alone a connection to each other. Although I am sure the community is grateful for their new worship space, I feel that an opportunity has been missed that they will never regain.

Interestingly, the introduction to this section of the magazine states that “While providing contemplative settings for meditation and prayer, houses of worship–whatever the faith–must also respond to the wide-ranging programatic needs of the people they serve.” I couldn’t agree more. But it seems to me that both examples published seem to focus more on the first part of that sentence than the second part. I believe that it is possible to design excellent buildings for worship that meet both parts of that equation and I am personally committed to carrying on the vision of my predecessors in this work.

The biophilia effect

Church of Christ the King by Foresight Architects

The Church of Christ the King by Foresight Architects

When we start talking about the “feel” of a new worship or gathering space with a client, we invariably hear words like “warm”, “inviting” and “peaceful”. Part of our job is to translate those words into a built environment that serves the intended purpose while conveying those feelings. Feedback from our clients indicates that we have been successful in meeting those goals – particularly in spaces where we have used a good deal of wood as finish materials. It turns out that science is now proving and defining what many church designers have probably known for a long time – that when given a choice, many people express a preference for natural materials and other elements that incorporate or evoke nature.

The preference for nature has a name: biophilia, which literally means “love of life,” an affinity for living things and the natural world. The “biophilia effect” describes any of a number of positive impacts experienced when this affinity is evoked through a sensory experience of nature: sight, sound, smell, or feel. With architecture, the biophilia effect spans a broad range of elements that include positive personal responses to daylighting, views of nature, use of patterns, and use of natural materials such as wood products.

Gaudí and biophilia

Although some of this research may be new, the idea of basing building designs on nature is not new at all. One of the most steadfast proponents of this was the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. From his very earliest works, Gaudí used nature as a primary inspiration for his design work. Art critic and poet Juan-Eduardo Cirlot, in his Introduction to the architecture of Gaudí, writes that “Gaudí’s work shows an advance from traditional architecture towards new architectural structures based on mechanics and experiments such as the catenaries but, at the same time, and through the medieval and oriental tendencies in style, openly enters the world of natural morphology which does not copy but transforms and integrates it into an architectural or structural-ornamental factor.”

Walkway at Park Güell

Walkway at Park Güell

Anyone who has spent any time at all at Gaudí’s La Pedrera (Casa Milà) or Park Güell has seen firsthand how nature is a driving force in his designs. Tour guides at La Pedrera talk about the biophilia effect (though not in those exact terms) when they talk about the health benefits for those living in the apartments there. And Park Güell remains to this day a very popular spot for people seeking a return to nature and an escape from the insalubrious industrial city for which it was designed.

But nowhere is this biophilia more apparent than at the Sagrada Família. Over the 43 years during which he developed the design of this Expiatory Temple, Gaudí had the opportunity to research and develop new ways to integrate nature into his designs. For example, the arboreal balanced structure that determined the shapes, sizes and angles of the columns that support the aisles and roofs of the Sagrada Família, were based on a new calculation system that he developed while working on new church for the textile workers in Santa Coloma de Cervelló, which he began in 1898. Having spent ten years developing his new calculation system (a reverse model of hanging strips supporting appropriately weighted bags), he was able to prove that the system work through the construction of the crypt at Colònia Güell. Based on his success at Colònia Güell, he designed a more evolved structural system for the Sagrada Familia that consisted of structural trees, where the weight of the vaults and roofs is transferred directly to the foundation via columns with multiple branches. Each supporting structure has a suitable inclination so that each one can support a small part of the vault and roofs perfectly. These “trees” make their way upwards in search of light, which enters the building through multiple high windows and skylights. It is no surprise that, when visiting the Sagrada Família, most people walk around with their heads tilted back, taking in the “forest experience” Gaudí succeeded in creating within the basilica.


Interior of the Sagrada Família

As one peers through this “forest”, one sees an extraordinary light filtering through the 60 freestanding stone columns. Described by their designer, artist Joan Vila Grau, as “symphonies of colors”, the abstract-design stained glass windows greatly contribute to creating a suitable ambiance for spiritual contemplation. Unlike more traditional stained glass, which tends to use the same palette of color throughout the windows, the colors of Vila Grau’s windows constantly change, based on the solar orientation and vertical location. The end result is nothing short of stunning. Not only does every window radiate light, regardless of the sun’s location, but they also wash the interior with magnificent, rich colors, further enhancing the light stone structural forest.

The Mystery of Creation

I have continued to read about and study the Sagrada Família since my return from Barcelona last December. I recently watched a film about it on Netflix called “Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation“. For me, the best part of this film was the interviews with the artists and architects that have been and continue to be involved in the completion of this magnificent structure. Although a number of new cathedrals have been built in recent years, the Sagrada Família is one of only a few major religious structures that were started more than one hundred years ago and are still under construction today. (The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, begun in 1892, is the only other one I am aware of.) I am quite certain that it would easily qualify as the world’s most visited construction site, as it is an active site with work continuing on both the interior and exterior as over 3,000,000 tourists a year pass through its doors. Most of the work you see now has been completed over the last 50 years, which means that many of those involved are still alive today. Those include chief architect Jordi Bonet i Armengol, who was entrusted with the building’s management between 1984 and 2012. Other architects and craftspeople whose parents had worked on the basilica were also interviewed. But the most interesting interviews with the two sculptors whose work adorn the Nativity and Passion facades, on opposite sides of the building.

The sculptors

Sculpture by Etsuro Sotoo

Sculpture by Etsuro Sotoo

Of the six sculptors who contributed to the Nativity facade, only Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo (b. 1953) is still alive today. Sotoo, who carved the singing and musical angels of the Nativity facade, as well as the leaves and the fruits of the large windows of the aisles (for which there were only remains of Gaudí’s models) spoke about how he worked to understand Gaudí’s vision for his carvings. He eventually came to see that to understand Gaudí, he had to “look where Gaudí looked”, rather than look at Gaudí. This realization led to him converting from Buddhism to Roman Catholicism.


Sculpture by Josep Maria Subirachs

The other sculptor who was interviewed, Josep Maria Subirachs, passed away a couple of years after the filmed interview. Subirachs was responsible for the entire sculptural group of the Passion facade, which departs from the overall “style” of the building. Subirachs spoke about how, as he was a modernist sculptor, he had to carve in his own style in order to be true to himself. Calling himself an atheist but a “cultural Christian”, he found his inspiration not in Gaudî but in his reading of the scriptures related to Christ’s passion, death & resurrection.


The opponents

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film was the interview with the late British-born, Barcelona-adopted David Mackay. Mackay told the story of how, in 1965, a manifesto against the continuation of construction works was signed and published by notable Modernist architects, artists, and writers including Le Corbusier, Josep Lluis Sert, Bruno Zevi, Joan Miro, Antoni Tàpies, Ricardo Bofill, Camilo José Cela, Jaime Gil de Biedma, and (ironically) Josep Maria Subirachs. On the one hand, the signers argued against continuing construction on urban and aesthetic grounds derived from Modernism, and on the other, for leaving the building as it was at Gaudí’s death as a cenotaph for the architect. These objections dovetailed with general objections by the communist and atheist groups of Spain to the religious and decorative nature of such a prominent work. The most obvious effect of this letter was, again ironically, an enormous increase in donations to help complete the structure.

Although one of the instigators of the manifesto publicly changed his position in 2010, until a few years before his death, Mackay (who was one of the signers of the 1965 manifesto) continued to question how the Sagrada Família is being completed, questioning whether it is or is not “morally correct”. He questions whether the structural engineers are truly following Gaudí’s structural proposals. It is an interesting question, worth considering. Mackay’s firm was largely responsible for a major rebirth of Barcelona through their redevelopment of the industrialized harbor. He believed in contemporary planning principles and their benefits. But I feel as if he is missing a larger point in his criticisms of the current implementation of Gaudî’s vision of the Sagrada Família, which seems to have such a universal appeal. Of course it will never be as Gaudí would have finished it. But does that mean it should be as someone else would finish it? I can’t see how that would make the building any better.

The fans

Cited at the top of the list in a 2007-2008 survey about people’s most profound, lasting, and/or intense experiences of architecture, it is clear that visitors are relating to this structure in ways that they rarely relate to more modern structures. The question is why. Is it because of the biophilia effect? We know that Gaudí had a great respect for life and its creations. He did not see himself as a creative person at all. Rather, he claimed that God created and he just copied.

Patterns can evoke the biophilia effect. According to Nikos Salingaros, “much, if not all, of natural structure is fractal” (2012). His discussion of fractals does not demand a strict mathematical interpretation of fractal; infinite repetition isn’t necessary, only a scaled self-similar pattern. Salingaros posits that visual fractals in the environment mitigate physical stress and may even have a healing effect, based on other research. This is contrasted with the modernist ethic, which favors a stark minimalist or abstract look; Salingaros points out that a majority of people feel uncomfortable or stressed in such surroundings and argues for evidence-based design rather than “a largely mythical industrial efficiency.”

We know that Gaudí was fascinated with fractal structures in nature. Researchers Iasef Md Rian and Mario Sassone in their research paper “Tree-inspired dendriforms and fractal-like branching structures in architecture: A brief historical overview” said this about Gaudí’s design of the Sagrada Família:


Ceiling structure of the Sagrada Família

He applied the concept of branching column for holding the canopy in a systematic way with the close study of structural forces and stresses (Saudi, 2002). He inclined the columns so they could put up better with the perpendicular pressures on their section by providing them a double turn helicoid shape (right turn and left turn), as seen in the branches and trunks of trees, thus creating a structure that is nowadays known as fractals (Gómez, 2002). Together with a modulation of the space which divides it into small, independent and self-supporting units, it creates a structure that perfectly supports the mechanical traction forces, thus fuses the constructional innovation with the esthetic originality. In this context, Gaudi once clarified, ‘my structural and aesthetic ideas have an ‘indisputable’ logic’ ( Martinell, 1951).

Completing the work

Gaudí not only knew that he would not finish the Sagrada Família in his lifetime; he also knew that technology would change over the many years of its construction. It is one of the reasons he made the radical choice to complete one facade first rather than build the basilica from the bottom up, as was typically done. Beside projecting that it would help the basilica attract donations, he realized that future technologies might make the construction of the rest of the basilica quicker and easier. He anticipated the use of reinforced concrete for portions of the building and left room for other innovations future generations might make.


Exterior view of the work in progress

But perhaps the main reason I disagree with the manifesto’s position relative to the completion of the Sagrada Família is that it is entirely inconsistent with the primary purpose of the Sagrada Familia. The idea of an expiatory temple (which is part of the official name of the Sagrada Família) is that it is built through endeavor, sacrifice and individual contributions to atone for personal and collective sins. In this way, people from all over the world, many of whom have remained anonymous, have contributed and continue to contribute to the construction. This would have been impossible if construction has been halted. Based on what I have seen of more modern religious buildings (and the controversy that usually surrounds them), I highly doubt that any other design could generate over 60,000,000 euros per year in donations. How often do you hear a tour guide of a building undergoing construction or renovation say, “We have more than enough money to finish the project – it’s just a matter of time now.”?

It is clear that people both within and outside Barcelona love the Sagrada Família. For many, visiting it is the highlight of their visit to this beautiful city. But even those who don’t love it understand what Gaudí was trying to accomplish: “With its avoidance of straight lines and right angles, and its tree-like columns, it embodies Gaudí’s belief that he should follow nature.” writes architecture critic Rowan Moore. While research into the biophilia effect is still in its early stages, it is a rapidly growing interdisciplinary field. Its results point toward myriad benefits to be gained from using biophilic principles in design of commercial and public projects, many of which have been used for decades already.

Thank you, Mr. Gaudí, for such an inspiring case study. I will surely be back to see it again and study it further.

Plenty Good Room at Black Catholic Apostolate

Choir director at Black Catholic ApostolatePlenty Good Room: The Spirit and Truth of African American Catholic Worship is the title of the 1990 liturgical document promulgated by the Secretariat for the Liturgy and Secretariat for Black Catholics and by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The general concern of this document is the cultural adaptation of the liturgy, specifically as it applies to the African American Catholic Community. As a member of such a community (The Black Catholic Apostolate of the Albany Diocese), I have referred to this document from time to time to see how our community compares.

On Sunday, February 28, 2016, the Mass was in memory of my sister, Jeanine, who had passed away a year ago on that day. I was asked to participate in the Presentation of the Gifts, along with other members of the community. This video records that wonderful opportunity for me to honor my sister’s memory through joyful dance.

Referring back to Plenty Good Room, paragraph 103 describes Sacred Song as follows:

103. African Americans are heirs to the West African music aesthetic of the call-and-response structure, extensive melodic ornamentation (e.g., slides, slurs, bends, moans, shouts, wails and so forth), complex rhythmic structures, and the integration of song and dance. As a result, African American sacred song, as Thea Bowman noted, is:

holistic: challenging the full engagement of mind, imagination, memory, feeling, emotion, voice and body:

participatory: inviting the worshiping community to join in contemplation, in celebration, and in prayer;

real: celebrating the immediate concrete reality of the worshiping community—grief or separation, struggle or oppression, determination or joy—bringing that reality to prayer within the community of believers;

spirit-filled: energetic, engrossing, intense; and

life-giving: refreshing, encouraging, consoling, invigorating, sustaining.

I am happy to say that that description perfectly matches my experience during that liturgy. What a gift it was to me! Please feel free to join us at the Black Catholic Apostolate for Sunday liturgy any time and experience it for yourself!