I’ve been thinking a lot about architecture recently. This is strange, because I resolved at the end of 2004 that I would never again be subjected to an assignment that required me to consider the built form (or fibonacci numbers, for that matter). A year of sleepless nights consumed by balsa wood models and two-point perspective drawings well and truly extinguished any lingering gusto I initially had when I started my architecture degree as a fresh-faced high school graduate. Or at least I so thought.
Earlier this year, I had the absolute privilege of travelling to Israel for three and a half weeks to take part in a biblical studies field trip with Alphacrucis. Of the countless things that stand out retrospectively, I can’t help but find myself still overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of the Greco-Roman architecture found in places like Beit She’an (otherwise known as Scythopolis) in the north of the country, where to this day you can sit in a column-flanked amphitheatre and walk within metres of exquisite mosaics encrusting the shop floors of antiquity.
In understanding that these ridiculously grandiose structures were strategically placed to symbolically impose the values of the Roman Empire in regions resistant to imperial maxims, I’ve found myself reflecting on the potential influence of architecture and space design in conveying and reinforcing power structures – and how this is subconsciously carried out in the church building as it is formatted to connect in relevance to its community. I don’t have any answers, but I think there are serious questions we ought to consider, because we too often overlook the implicit theological messages we send out when we design our church spaces.
When we organise the individual seats of our church auditoriums to be focused on a colour-lit stage where the same few regularly tread, what does this imply about our understanding of the priesthood of all believers? We want to be relevant by engaging people in a familiar environment – but can our church buildings encourage a phenomenon whereby some become more powerful simply because they are in this colour-lit position more frequently than others and gain greater esteem?
When we have individual seats, all facing in one direction towards this stage, with the screens up the front drawing our individual attention, do we have any need to interact with the person sitting next to us in church? In our organisation of space, do we encourage an experience of faith that is in the presence of others, yet almost entirely individualised – that is only pseudo-communal?
I guess what I’m asking boils down to one question: if we had the chance to go back to the drawing board and reorganise the space of our churches so they would reflect and reinforce more fully an understanding of God’s kingdom as truly communal, equitable and inclusive… what would they look like?