How To Guides

Shared Creative Moments: The Genesis of Spiritual Space

January 03, 2008

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St. Elizabeth University ParishMuch of what I thought I understood about the creative design process has changed radically, thanks to my many church and religious clients. Like most of us, in my early architectural career, I had understood that the creative impulse was an isolated, individual experience. I trained myself in school to look internally, to seek out that moment of “Eureka!” when an image or solution is revealed like a lightning bolt of creative energy. Though I soon realized that I could be creative in lots of other ways, I still assumed, like most of my architectural colleagues, that true design inspiration came from somewhere inside myself.

When I began working with churches, it occurred to me that the client is always a group.  These groups are comprised of many creative individuals, but when they bring their gifts together, their activity is actually an expression of shared spirituality. Though there are aspects of private spirituality in our many faith traditions, most of what we do in ministry as believers takes place in community. My concept of a private creative design process seemed more appropriate for the life of a hermit than the dynamic and vibrant life I was experiencing with the faith groups and communities of my clients.

St. Elizabeth University Parish in Lubbock, Texas Over many years of practice, I have come to see design as a shared, group endeavor. The “Eureka” moment can and should be experienced by a group collectively. This often leads to solutions way beyond any that we as individuals would have discovered by ourselves. Furthermore, the spirit that connects us in that moment of revelation often has contributed to a special holiness or sacredness to the completed building. I believe so strongly in the power of shared creativity that I’ve changed our design process to break down the barriers between the architects and ministry leaders.  We have retrained ourselves as designers to expect the group, through a structured series of events, to generate and affirm the best design.

Some of the amazing moments I have shared with our church clients have generated truly inspired solutions.
St. Elizabeth University Parish in Lubbock, Texas
In one group, a highly connected attorney was moved to tears as he shared memories of the church during his college days. The design that came from the group later in the session incorporated the traditional design style of the nearby campus. St. Elizabeth’s University Catholic Church is now a major landmark near the entrance to Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas.

Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, NCAn impassioned committee member forcefully expressed his view that the existing 40-year-old church should be torn down. He reminded the group that this was the space in which he and his wife were married, their children were baptized, and his wife’s funeral took place, but that he was convinced it was time to move on. The old church was torn down and has been replaced with a new and expanded church building. Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina has embraced this new spiritual place and fully utilizes its innovative flexible worship environment.

St. Albert Trapani, Houston, TXThe architects assumed that new construction would be the best solution for a congregation that wished to be more traditional, yet were worshiping in a 1960s era modernist space. The group design session culminated with a presentation of many brainstormed solutions, every one of which featured a renovated worship space. The process revealed that the best solution was indeed to reject the architect's initial suggestion and renovate rather than build new. St Albert of Trapani Catholic Church in Houston, Texas is now months away from starting its renovation program, and although traditional elements are included in the expansion, the overall modernist design of the building remains.

As I work in different faith traditions, I have come to realize there are spiritual connections being made at the moments we experience the energy of shared creativity. In our Catholic tradition, groups have noted the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. That same experience has been noted by other groups as an expression of Jung’s collective subconscious. An Islamic group and several Jewish congregations have also shared the experience with us, though they chose to refer to it simply as a shared spirit that was experienced within the group.

From a strictly social perspective, I describe what we are experiencing as a continuation of the pioneering tradition of barn-raising. In the past, settlers from many lands brought their traditions, gifts and aspirations together when faced with building challenges. When these pioneers built churches and places of worship, they often rose beyond the ordinary in beautiful inspired ways. Their gift to us as contemporary believers is a long legacy of inspired worship places in cities and towns all across the United States. We can only hope our legacy will be as successful for future generations.

Ben Heimsath, AIA is a Principal of Heimsath Architects, Austin, Texas.


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