Things to Consider

Gathering for Worship: Design Considerations

March 30, 2009

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The area on the mountain where

Courtyard of St. Mark the Evangelist

Jesus gave fish and bread to a large crowd, the Upper Room, the Garden at Gethsemane, the location for the wedding feast at Cana, and similar places are examples of New Testament “gathering spaces” that served different functions. Today, gathering spaces have the common goal of welcoming us as we come to worship, yet they also serve a multiplicity of additional goals.

People come to places of worship for various occasions and various reasons, often for communal celebrations but sometimes for quiet “alone” time to mediate and simply “be” in a beautiful space. With this in mind, let us reflect on some of the purposes gathering spaces serve and how these purposes influence design considerations.

In earlier days, gathering spaces served as a kind of town hub outside the church, where many activities took place. The space was multi-functional. Church social activities, such as outdoor meetings, entertainment, celebrations, musical performances, etc., were celebrated in these spaces. Piazzas, such as the ones in St. Peter’s Square in Rome with Bernini’s semi-circular colonnade arms embracing the people, St. Giovanni in Laterano, St. Maria Maggiori, and St. Paul Outside the Walls, are very strong examples of large gathering spaces where multiple functions of the city and the beginnings of rituals are reinforced by the importance of the space.

Courtyard of St. Mark'sAs time went on, these “Piazzas” or gathering spaces principally evolved from accommodating civic activities into more clearly defined liturgical spaces. They became specialized spaces where the beginnings of certain liturgical celebrations, e.g., initiation, rites, marriage rites, and funeral rites, would be celebrated to reinforce the importance of gatherings and to underline the threshold aspects of these sacraments.

A gathering space included as part of the design of a church (interior and/or exterior) serves to welcome people as they come together to give thanks and praise to God. As worshipers arrive from difference places, these spaces create stopping points or thresholds on the journey for the assembly. Although designed to serve a liturgical function, these spaces can also help meet the community’s needs to have a place for socializing.

From a liturgical perspective, it is essential to keep in mind the various needs that involve the gathering area over the course of the liturgical year. Most often, the space serves as an area of transition, that is, from a parking lot or outdoor walkway to the church. It’s a place where people can greet each other as they come to be nourished by Word and Eucharist and then be sent to share the Good News just celebrated and experienced. The space might also serve as a place to gather for particular liturgical rituals, such as the blessing of the fire during the Service of Light that begins the Easter Vigil. Another occasion is Palm Sunday. As the community gathers, palms are blessed, and people prepare to process into the church with palm branches in hand.

Some gathering spaces provide an area where a person can find a place very “off the path” to simply “be.” These Labyrinth at Glendalough Abbey, Irelandspaces invite personal thoughts and prayer. They can be defined by the use of landscaping, sculptures, water features, and other architectural elements. These spaces might include meditation gardens, devotional corners, and possibly a labyrinth.

All gathering spaces should provide an environment that offers a sense of both “our space” and “my space,” that is where we feel at home when in the midst of the gatherings of the community, as well as when we’re in the space alone for personal meditation and prayer. What I mean by this is that the architectural elements, including the landscaping, hardscape (masonry and pavers, woodwork, etc.), water features, and so on, should serve to create and foster a well-defined space that allows for the community or an individual to take “ownership” of the space.

Master Plan

It is very important that when a church site is designed, special attention is given to the master plan. The idiosyncrasies of the particular parish, as well as a good understanding of the documents such as the U.S. Bishops’ Built of Living Stones, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, and diocesan guidelines are paramount elements in understanding the liturgical forces that affect gathering space design. Liturgical movements for each rite are crucial design issues that have to be addressed and incorporated into the master Courtyard of Our Lady of the Rosaryplan for a successful space to reinforce the liturgical actions celebrated.

Depending on budgets, the entire Gathering Plan may not be implemented from the onset. Certain elements, such as a gathering space for the community or a place for the blessing of the Easter fire, should be part of the initial building phase. This will create a footprint for orderly and defined future phases of the Gathering Plan.

Like the church proper, every aspect of gathering spaces should be fully accessible to allow for ease of movement for people with disabilities, as indicated in the Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A Checklist for Gathering Space Design

» Consider functions:

Communal liturgical celebrations & devotional prayer
Transitional space
Parish social activities
Spaces for quiet reflection/meditation

» Create a focal point as people enter the gathering space

» Include paths that allow the community to flow from one space to other.

» Be mindful of human scale: People need to feel comfortable

» Ensure ease of movement, e.g., include wide paths

» Create visual richness and variety, e.g., consider a variety of textures for materials

» Be inclusive: create a barrier free design

» Be good stewards of the environment; consider sustainable “green” design

» Especially for exterior gathering spaces, including an area of water (small pond, stream or font) can be soothing for people seeking a place for quiet meditation

» Employ suitable and various colors and textures for landscaping; try to include plants appropriate for the different seasons

» Be mindful of hardscaping: Create paths that easily guide people towards the entryways.

See slideshow for photo credits.

Alberto Portela, Jr., AIA is a Liturgical Design Consultant and Liturgical Architect with Portela and Associates, Architecture, Planning, Interiors in Tampa, Florida USA.

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