How To Guides

Strategies for Designing a Multicultural Worship Space

December 10, 2008

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African Madonna The design approach for multicultural worship spaces (new construction or renovation) is similar to most church design projects, namely, (1) establishing a representative core committee that (2) selects an appropriate design team, (3) defines the goals and aspirations of the project, while (4) studying relevant church documents. This article addresses subtle nuances that emerge in these steps due to multicultural settings. This article is not a scholarly study on post colonial multicultural committee dynamics, or techniques used to bridge competing culturally-based symbolic systems, but rather practical advice based on personal experience.

Establishing a representative committee

All projects need a small core group (12-15 members) that serves as the project’s advisory committee. Subcommittees might be formed for fundraising, music, dedication ceremony, art and furnishings, but this core committee needs to remain small so consensus can be reached. This group must reflect the full spectrum of folks who worship (or will worship) in this space, and be diverse in age, style of worship, cultural heritage, new member versus parish elder, etc. It is important that in a multicultural setting, these people are seen as leaders within their respective communities. Factions within immigrant groups are common, so parish leaders needs to choose representatives who bridge these factions within a subculture. Selected members need to communicate comfortably in the common language chosen by the committee and will have to straddle two cultures: their root culture and the committee’s culture. The facilitator needs to be familiar with discussion techniques useful in cross-cultural communication. (1)

Sinte GleskaMichael Rotondi, FAIA from RoTo Architecture (Los Angeles) describes working with Native American elders when designing Sinte Gleska University, the first tribal university in the United States at the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. The elders would leave the room when Michael would start asking questions. Finally, they shared with him that they were teaching him patience and to quiet his own thoughts so he could hear their words without his usual filters. Such process is not easy (or appreciated) within mainstream American culture, so all members need to be comfortable adopting new procedures.

Many cultural groups show a deference to clergy and religious, so members need training in healthy ways of challenging one another. If there is a dominant cultural group, care is needed to balance the minority voice, especially if that minority voice is a growing population within the community. Joy and grief that accompany growth and decline must be acknowledged and monitored by the committee. I have found it helpful for committees to take five minutes to review the interactions that took place in the meeting, to make sure no secondary messages were inadvertently communicated.

LA CathedralSelecting appropriate designers and artists

Not all architects are comfortable bridging cultural stereotypes to explore alternative shapes, forms, and color familiar to immigrant groups. Churches have to be careful not to create "cartoons" of buildings from an immigrant’s homeland. Local climate and building materials influence authentic building design. When several cultures merge, the design needs to support each group’s understanding of space but should not mimic any single culture’s familiar shapes and forms. Many architectural critics (2) have pointed out that the Los Angeles Cathedral is not stylistic specific, but is "accessible" to many cultures by its merging of forms and shapes familiar to immigrant groups and historic approaches for bringing natural light into churches. During the Olympics in Los Angeles, the designers established a color palette derived from the colors of celebration of Pacific Rim countries. Vermillion and magenta were blended with light blue and gold to create a striking palette that was unique to the Games and resonated with the diverse culture groups that comprise the city.

SJW FontArtists commissioned for critical pieces of liturgical and devotional art need to respond to the collective sense of culture within the community. At St. Joseph the Worker, a well respected local artist created contemporary mosaic panels using common Mexican tiles. Another artist created custom tiles for the base of the baptismal font depicting flowers with symbolic importance to Central and South American cultures while weaving into them the local Tulip crop (Holland, Michigan), for which many of the immigrants harvested the fields.

Meaning and use of color varies by culture. In Vietnam, for example, white is a color of mourning, while in Europe it is understood as purity. At Saint Patrick’s church the core committee did not want to present a color palette labeled "multicultural." They felt it would be divisive. We re-labeled the color palette "mission style" (responding to the architectural style of the church), and the parish embraced the selection, which compliments the fabrics worn by African American and Hispanic members on days of celebrations. At St. Joseph the Worker, an initial color scheme proposed by the architects, based on colors from Mexican building, was rejected because it looked too domestic. A graphic artist, trained in Mexico City, recalibrated the colors to work for sacred space. Committees need to select artists who demonstrate an ability to bridge cultures, even if they have not done liturgical work.

Defining goals and aspirations

Folks are familiar with how their own group worships, but may not realize the shared sense of worship between groups. Instead of starting discussions around specific ritual locations within the church (altar, confessional, font, etc.), it is easier for immigrant groups to describe ceremonies, especially as to how they were celebrated in their native homeland. Shared familiar experiences often emerge, which informs the design of these ritual areas. As the committee studies liturgical documents, they can discern if these practices conform to current liturgical norms, local practices, and emerging trends. Once groups have articulated the familiar and studied the documents, they tend to be less fearful of imagining something new.

Even though different groups worship in different styles (spirit- filled, traditional piety, contemplation, praise, etc.), the new space needs to support these practices and promote a shared sense of how the community worships collectively. At St. Joseph the Worker in Grand Rapids, Michigan, each major Hispanic group (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadorians, Cubans, etc.) had an image of Mary that they brought from their homeland. We collected these images and set them into a contemporary reredos behind the altar platform so each group could celebrate their shared patronage of Mary that leads them safely to this Table. The votive candles and platform for flowers are shared between them all, to reinforce their collective sense of journey.

Understanding church documents

Most committees are not familiar with the literary structure of liturgical church documents. It is helpful to educate members on the different juridical levels of official documents, as well as the word choice and structure that accompany approved adaptations. The committee has to acknowledge that countries adhere to laws differently, as anyone who has driven in Italy can attest. Members should also be sensitive to cultures that may have been chastised by Rome for adaptations of liturgical law; the Malabar and Chinese Rite controversies are still painful.

As I hope these experiences demonstrate, design strategies for multicultural environments are similar to approaches used for designing monoculture worship environments, with a few minor nuances.

(1) See Eric Law, The Wolf Shall Dwell With the Lamb: A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1993) and Mark Francis. Models for Multicultural Liturgies (Washington, D.C.: Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, 1998).

(2) Robert Campbell. "Marying Modernism to Tradition: A New Cathedral Seeks to Reconcile History with Contemporary Values and Design." Metropolis 22:4 (December 2002), 141; David Thurman, "Touched by Angels: Los Angeles Cathedral," World Architecture, no. 111 (November 2002), 16-25; Michael J. Farrell, "Los Angeles Cathedral: Relic of a Medieval Past or Soul of a Modern City?" National Catholic Reporter 35 (April 19, 1999), 14-16; and "Rafael Moneo: Cattedrale Di Nostra Signora: Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, Lost Angeles 1997," Casabella 64:677 (April 2000), 8-12.

Gilbert Sunghera, SJ is a liturgical space consultant at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, Detroit, Michigan, USA.


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