Things to Consider

The Relationship between Architecture and Liturgy

March 07, 2007


Good architecture like good liturgy should leave a person changed.

Architecture like liturgy is a “work of the people.” Architecture for liturgy should be designed with and for the people who will be using it. It should not be an opportunity for the architect to engage in an idiosyncratic display of design prowess, technical experimentation or serve the motivation to create a “signature” building.

Like liturgy, architecture for worship should be an authentic expression of the community from which it originates and for whom it serves. Both liturgy and the architecture, which supports it, need to reflect the values, traditions and context of the place in which it occurs.

There is no one style, period or era that can be pointed to as the most appropriate for liturgy anymore than there is one formula for liturgy that can meet the needs of all cultures that make up the church throughout the world.

Many of the qualities that comprise beautiful architecture can apply to liturgy:

            A sense of balance and harmony
            Nothing showy or out of place
            Avoidance of monotonous repetition
            Authenticity of expression
            An underlying structure of integrity
            Avoidance of personal conceits and idiosyncrasies
            Creative use of rhythm, meter and sequence

Architecture for worship like the liturgy it serves should aid in experiencing both the immanent and the transcendent aspects of God.

Worship space should be designed like liturgy to bring people together rather than to emphasize or create divisions. This begins with the design process, which should be inclusive and participatory and extends through the construction process to the completed building. There needs to be an openness, hospitality to ideas as well as individuals and a resulting plan that encourages a sense of participation and community.

Humility is a necessary ingredient in the design of both architecture for worship and liturgy. Both should be designed in a spirit of prayer and with an ear for the small, quiet voice of the Spirit. Both architecture and liturgy suffer when egos get involved at the expense of collective or infused wisdom.

Design for movement is essential in both liturgy and architecture. There needs to be a sense that the body is involved in worship as well as the mind and spirit. Architecture for worship should facilitate processions, dance, and the coming together of the community. The whole sequence of arrival, gathering, worshipping, gathering afterwards and leaving should be looked upon as an integrated experience both liturgically and architecturally.

Hospitality is a critical dimension of liturgy and architecture. Both must be welcoming, inclusive, inviting and participatory. This extends to those disabled in any way. The building can encourage hospitality through many devices and techniques used by architects such as lighting, warmth of materials, signage, landscaping, good acoustics, ease of access for all ages and physical abilities.

The experience of beauty should be the goal and hallmark of liturgy and architecture for worship. Beauty, truth and goodness are the classical, time-tested characteristics of things judged to have everlasting value. The church has spent much time and energy on teaching about truth and goodness, much less on the value of beauty. Liturgy and architecture are potentially powerful allies in the teaching of beauty since beauty has to be experienced for a true understanding. Beauty cannot be explained by words nearly as effectively as it can be understood if experienced. Creating beauty in liturgy or in a building is a goal worthy of any liturgist or architect. Working together the results can be life changing for those who experience the mysterious power of beauty to touch the deepest recesses of the heart.

Touching mystery is at the heart of both liturgy and architecture for worship. Using everyday materials, methods and human hands, liturgists and architects try to create an experience that leads people into the mystery of creation, of their own lives and those of the larger community. Using all the arts at their command, liturgists and architects seek to make present a world “beyond the veil,” to challenge and encourage deeper searching and meaning in people’s everyday lives.

Architecture for worship and liturgy should avoid the traps of style, fashion, trends, fads and ideologies. None of these have lasting value but can be very seductive in our media-driven era. Only through designing from the inside out with a vigilant eye towards producing something truly authentic to its time, place and local congregation, will the liturgist or architect produce a work of long-term meaning and effect.

Simplicity. There is nothing harder for a designer of either liturgy or architecture than to keep things simple. That does not mean simplistic or mundane. It means coming up with a central idea or theme and working for its purest expression. These are the ideas and images that stick with people….like the short, cogent homily instead of the 30-minute rambling discourse. Like the liturgy, the architecture of worship should serve and point to a mystery and truth far beyond the cleverness of the designers. No small feat in this age of technological complexity with all its seductive “bells and whistles."

J. David Richen is an Architect and Consultant to Religious Communities, who lives in Portland, OR.


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