Architecture, Like Religion, Has Transforming Power for Springdale Church

by Chris Bahn  on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 12:00 am  

Among the chief tenets of the Christian faith is the idea that believers can be transformed through a relationship with God. As is written in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone. The new has come!”

Father John Atchison and the congregation at St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Springdale see the building where they worship as a metaphor for that transformative power. What was once a metal shop building has been reborn as an award-winning structure designed by renowned Fayetteville architect Marlon Blackwell.

St. Nicholas opened off 48th Street in Springdale three years ago, but continues to earn recognition for its design. Blackwell, who heads the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas, was recently given an Honor Award for Architecture, the highest recognition a project can earn from the American Institute of Architects.

“This was just a plain old metal building, it wasn’t spectacular,” Atchison said. “It didn’t look like anything, but was transformed. The metaphor can easily become how we’re very plain and not very attractive and God makes us a temple.”

The building’s transformation has not gone unnoticed by those in the architecture community. Blackwell has designed a number of award-winning projects, but few seem to have resonated the way his work at St. Nicholas has.

Since it opened, the church has racked up eight awards, including Renovations Magazine Grand Award and AIA’s Small Projects Award in 2012. Blackwell, like Atchison, thinks the building has an impact because something as simple and seemingly unfit for a church as a metal shop building has been transformed.

Plus, the project was completed with a small budget and with the traditions of the Orthodox Church in mind. Some traditions, like having the worship center face east, were easy to accommodate. Others presented more of a challenge.

Orthodox churches traditionally include a dome and a recessed area in the ceiling that includes a portrait of Christ looking over the congregation as they worship. Adding a dome would have required cutting through the ceiling, something that could have compromised the structure and put the project way over its $400,000 budget.

Contractor Don Lourie suggested repurposing a satellite dish to provide the look of a domed ceiling from inside the sanctuary. The dish — bartered in exchange for two cases of beer — was covered in plaster, inverted and, as it’s described on “then inscribed with the image of the ‘pantocrator,’ the image of Christ rising as the sun in the east.”

Other notable features of the church include: oak floor that was produced in Arkansas, a sky-lit tower with a red glass cross that is backlit at sunrise each day and a descending ceiling in the narthex (an element of architecture found in early Christian churches).

Video: Click below to watch a video about the architecture of the church.

There were elements of the design that Blackwell eventually had to abandon. Instead of paintings of the church’s icons, prints or decals are used. Blackwell had to design shelves to hold robes, candles and other instruments of worship, rather than building cabinets for them.

It’s that simplicity — and the willingness to be a good steward of the church’s limited resources — that has helped earn the building recognition.

“The project makes the most with the least, displaying deep resource efficiency as an integral part of its design ethos — something more architects should be thinking about and practicing,” one AIA juror noted when evaluating the church.

Blackwell takes pride in the fact that limited resources could be turned into something internationally recognized for its beauty. It has, he said, inspired him to think about projects where he uses only repurposed materials.

“Too often architecture is deemed for the elite, the rich and the powerful,” Blackwell said. “I think the architecture we try to do is for the everyday. It’s for everyone. I think this church is a way to demonstrate that and hopefully it’s an inspiration to others.”

Atchison said the way the church is designed has been an inspiration to church members. Because it is a humble structure and intimate, it lends itself to the appropriate mindset for worship.

St. Nicholas has seen a 30-percent increase in attendance since it opened. Part of that is attributed to the recognition the church has received, and Atchison said it also helps that there are limited distractions inside the sanctuary, which can accommodate up to 100 people when a moveable wall is opened up into the fellowship hall.

“I think it’s simple enough that people can relax,” Atchison said. “If you make it extremely elaborate it can be distracting. People who have come to church here tell us it’s interesting how people just come in and worship. That is the goal, after all: Get people to think about God and worship Him.”



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