What you see and what you get: the shape of our buildings and how we use them

Posted by on May 20, 2019 in Architecture

What you see and what you get: the shape of our buildings and how we use them

One of the things that fascinates me about church buildings is not just the raw architecture but also what it communicates about how the church in it works, how it thinks about itself and how this may completely contrast with how the church actually uses the space.  Too often as architects we visit buildings when they are not in use.  We can infer a certain amount but it’s only when seen in use that we can fully understand how the building can shape, enhance or inhibit the activity within it.

One really interesting opportunity to study this is when attending several services in quick succession and seeing the contrasts between them.  I got this opportunity on Easter Sunday when, following a ridiculous tradition I have established over the last few years, I tried to get to as many different services as possible.

Old St. Pauls

The first of these was before dawn at Old St. Paul’s.  Old St. Paul’s is the epitome of High Episcopalianism in Scotland – all the smells and bells and full of drama.  At first glance, once enough candles have been lit to allow you to see what’s going on, it is a Gothic Revival building with a simple division of space into the nave, where the congregation are, and the chancel – a sacred space set apart where the choir and clergy are set apart by their fancy robes.  But actually, there is something far more complex going on.  The focal point, where the action is happening, moves.  The new fire and the Paschal candle are lit at the back and then process through the nave lighting the congregation’s candles on the way; the gospel is brought out to be read right in the middle of the people.  And then at the climax of the service, the whole congregation process into the Sanctuary and up to the altar to receive communion.  What at first glance could be read as a simple division of spaces with a sacred space for the clergy and a lesser space for ordinary mortals actually was used in a far more dynamic way with both the clergy and the congregation moving back and forwards from one space to another.  Space was set apart as holy and the people were invited in.

Blackford Hill

The next two services were very different in both setting and form.  Both of these took place in the open air on top of Blackford Hill.  As such there were no buildings, but do you need a building for it to be architecture?  It was interesting to see how the two churches working without the normal constraints of their building acted in different ways.

The first was Duncan Street Baptist Church, a traditional baptist church.  A small group gathered in a huddle – the location and orientation largely just determined by where they happened to stop walking.  The service was led by one person standing facing the group, as they would be used to doing in their building.  Other than singing, everything happened up front although a couple of different people came up to do their part.

This was followed by Barclay Viewforth Church of Scotland using the same space in a different way.  Instead of the vague huddle a large circle was formed.  The service was largely led by one person, but they were just one of the members of the circle and there was a lot of interaction with a call and response type liturgy as well as readings from various people around the circle.

Bruntsfield Evangelical Church

After this I headed to my own church, Bruntsfield Evangelical Church.  Our building is a traditional Victorian preaching box which we inherited from the Church of Scotland many years ago – fairly square in shape and designed to allow as many people to see and hear the preacher in the pulpit with a little bit of restrained gothic decoration.  The first service was a traditional communion service, or at least traditional within our tradition – very unconventional for others.  Despite the layout of the space with rows of pews facing an empty pulpit, almost none of the service was led from the front and instead people from within the congregation would, from where they were, read a passage from the Bible, pray or request a hymn.  When it came to the communion, other than a couple of people passing it round, everyone remained in their place.  While this was about the most communal type of service possible, the physical layout was that of a very different type of service.

This was followed by a very different style of service, a lively family service with a band leading worship, readings and a sermon.  While the pulpit still wasn’t used, the whole service was led from the platform beneath it.  Almost everything happened up front, with little congregational participation except for singing.  In the first service I described, those leading the service were clearly distinguished by their dress while the centre of activity moved around the church.  In this service, people came up from among the congregation, did their part and returned to their seats with nothing to distinguish them from those around them.  The platform, although not a sacred space, was where the activity took place while the others watched.

The Usher Hall

And then finally in the evening, after a much-needed nap, a very different event in the Usher Hall.  This was a large worship event (I’m not quite sure whether to call it a service or a concert) with around two thousand people from many different churches from across the city and further afield.  In essence this was the classic theatre setup with performers on the stage facing an audience.  But interestingly there was very little direct leading from the front.  The event started with the words “Please Stand” appearing on the screen as they launched straight into the first of many congregational songs and continued that way for the next two and a half hours only interrupted by occasional solos, readings and short talk.  Despite the theatre setup, in some ways this had more of the feel of a group gathered around a campfire with an out of tune guitar – except replace the guitar with a full orchestra and rock band turned up to 11 and the small group of friends with a couple of thousand gathered from across the city singing themselves hoarse.

It is really interesting to see how different churches and different services make very different use of their spaces.  Sometimes the building, or lack of, accentuates and shapes what takes place in it; sometimes it hinders or even contradicts.  If you’d like me to visit your church and discuss with you how you use your space and how it could be improved, then please get in touch.

Neil McAllister

Associate Director