Gathering spaces are the heart of cities around the world. They welcome, orient, greet, and display the efforts of their people and the social life of the community. In the church setting, these spaces do all this -- and take on a sacred mission, as well.
The gathering place at Totihue Chapel in Totihue, Chile, by Gonzalo Mardones Viviani. © Nico Saieh
Story by Albert W. “Chip” Lindeke III, FAIA, and Craig Rafferty, FAIA, both principals, Rafferty Rafferty Tollefson Lindeke Architects Inc. (RRTL), St. Paul, MN
A place for gathering for the citizens of a community or city is one of the most common urban planning strategies throughout history since human settlements began to be established over 6,000 years ago. They began at points of intersection for people with similar lifestyle, such as hunting or farming, and they evolved into spaces born of the human need for protection and social interaction. The concept of “gathering around” is more than an often repeated saying; it is a very human response to many factors.
Totihue Chapel plan
Known as piazzas, plazas, public squares, town greens, city square, market place, platz, agora, mart and many other names; their common thread is a place for the people of a community to join together for music, politics, exchange, celebration, to share ideas, and to create or renew friendships. Such a space is the result of buildings or structures that define its shape, and reveal its character. These spaces primarily serve as a connector between a variety of activities: social, commercial, entertainment, religious, etc. Such spaces have become the heart of cities around the world. They are destinations for visitors too: Red Square in Moscow, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Trafalgar Square in London, Azadi Square in Tehran, and Times Square in New York. Large and well known, these number few in comparison to the thousands of small town squares throughout the world that are far less known, but every bit as effective.
These places of gathering welcome, orient, greet, and display the efforts of their people and the social life of the community. The leap from these activities and functions to the concept of a gathering space for a faith community is not difficult. Key within this leap however is the simple premise that they are part of the church identified as its people rather than church identified as a building.
St. Francis DeSales gathering space, Morgantown, WV; RRTL Architects
Ancient temples [were] conceived of [a] narthex as the entry into the temple’s nave where people worshipped together, oriented to the sanctuary (holy of holies), a place restricted from access except for the clergy. The ancient narthex is not the gathering space of today. Nor are the remaining principles that defined these temples. The gathering space we speak to here is one of generous sensibility beyond merely allowing entry into the temple.
In many ways worship at a synagogue, a church, a mosque, or temple begins the moment we leave our homes. The movement from our many different points of location are collected at the gathering space at our place of worship, where we renew our friendships, share ideas, have a snack or coffee, display activities, post messages, etc. From here, we move collectively into our actual worship celebration. Following our worship celebration, we can transition back to a social period again in the gathering space.Understated significance
It is the gathering space that initiates a church community welcoming, its orientation to different activities of education, administration, social meals, clergy access for consultation and guidance, connection to music, to daily services, and larger worship activities. It is also the ending point of activities ... the promise to come together again. It is traditionally the heart of a town and it is the heart of a community of faith. It is the space that creates connections, communicates, and defines our efforts. It prepares us for worship, sends us on our way and is the very center of our community.
Juma Mosque, Msheireb Heritage Quarters, Mshereib, Doha, Qatar; John McAslan+Partners; 4/5/2016 Architectural Review article by Velina Mirincheva
Traditionally such a space would hold a monument or a statue; it was not unusual for such a space to contain a fountain or moving water. Again, there can be a leap to understanding that elements of art depicting the community, to the patron of the community, even the idea of a baptismal font for introduction into the community could occur within the gathering space.
At the heart of tradition, at the intersection of the many activities forming a community of faith, lies the need to be welcoming, to orient with clarity of who we are as a community, to create a sense of security, a place of common purpose, and a place to begin worship together. The location can dictate where some will gather on the exterior while others will gather within a weather-protected space. The design of the space reflects these environmental needs. Additional considerations need to be given to finishes, lighting, as well as acoustics and media technologies. These design elements are important in supporting the use of the space and the variety of activities that take place [there]. While there can be similarities, each gathering space is unique, reflective of its community. The need, however, is universal.
[Writers' note: There are numerous examples of gathering spaces for communities of faith within recent and past Faith & Form Award recipients, as there are from projects published in Church Designer magazine.]