From the Architect: Design Considerations for Christ the Redeemer Church
January 05, 2009
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A significant new Catholic Church building has recently been dedicated on a 26 acre tract of the Cypress Prairie, at the western reaches of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. The 42 foot diameter central dome and 100 foot tall bell tower, reminiscent of the historic Spanish Mission churches of the San Antonio area of Central Texas, comfortably remind the faithful of this modern community of the tradition of Catholic Spanish influence in the region. The parish of Christ the Redeemer is expanding to keep pace with growth in the surrounding area of northwest Houston and the first pressing need being addressed is expanded space for worship. Now substantially complete, the parish has begun celebrating Mass in the new 1,500+ seat church, and soon the original church will be converted to a Daily Mass Chapel and other liturgical support spaces. In this article I will outline some of the more significant design considerations in the development of the project and focus on specific design elements and how they reflect the distinct personality of this parish community.
In an earlier article for this website, the pastor at Christ the Redeemer discussed the Congregational Questionnaire and Programming services we conducted for the parish during Master Planning. During those processes one overriding appeal came time and again from active and interested parishioners: “Please bring back to us, through the design of our new church, the rich worship environment, statuary, and religious symbols from our Catholic faith tradition.” Fortunately, at Christ the Redeemer there was a strong architectural character in place from which to build.
The physical plant at Christ the Redeemer originated in 1980 with separate Church and Parish Hall buildings designed in a contemporary interpretation of Spanish Colonial Architecture, perhaps in tribute to the beloved 18th and 19th century churches of the Spanish missionaries in Central Texas. But the current appeal was clearly for a more literal and direct reference to the appearance and ambiance of those structures that are among the preeminent historic landmarks for Texans. We developed architectural massing and design elements of the Spanish influence and highlighted them with a palette of exterior materials including stucco and native limestone veneers, copper and terra cotta clay tile roofing, and stained glass windows. The challenge was to further enrich the visual historicism of the campus while complimenting the existing structures and their established style.
Building Shape and Seating Arrangement
A cruciform (cross-shaped) footprint and roof plan was laid out for the church, with a dome rising over the crossing of the nave and transept arms, and a bell tower near the front entrance at the north end. A combination of steep gable and low slope roofing designs, true to the design of those mission complexes, allow for variety and visual contrast in the overall appearance. The biggest design challenge was incorporating a fan-shaped pew arrangement (allowing better site lines and closer proximity of the congregation to one another and to the altar) within the footprint of a cross-shaped church that is more easily suited to straight pew sections on either side of a long center aisle. The solution to this problem would prove to be the defining element of the building’s structural framework and will be discussed further in a later article.
It was decided that the tabernacle was to be placed on center and at the rear of the sanctuary platform. The tabernacle in the original church is located in an adjacent chapel space, not readily accessible to ministers or visible to worshipers in the church. The requirement that the tabernacle placement be visible from all seats in the new church, as well as the original church (now chapel), meant that a separate tabernacle space, or Enthronement Room, be placed between the church and chapel sanctuary platforms and be accessible from both during Mass. With its placement, changeable lighting scenes to coordinate with the Order of the Mass, and visibility throughout both spaces, the tabernacle has a prominent place in the worship complex.
Full immersion adult baptism is gaining popularity in the Catholic Church and large fonts are being designed and placed within our churches to accommodate this ritual and its inherent symbolism. At Christ the Redeemer a combination font for infant baptisms (bowl) and adult immersion (pool) was designed for prominent placement immediately within the body of the church upon entry form the narthex. The footprint of the font continues the repeated reference to the Spanish-styled quatrefoil designed for the large rose windows and in details of the furniture.
Chapels and Statuary
Under the half-domed apse ends of the two transept arms are votive chapels, open and visible throughout the nave. These chapels provide a place for votive prayer and devotional statuary requested by so many parishioners. Coordinated with the stained glass rose windows above, Mary’s Chapel is in the east transept and Joseph stands to the west. Additional statuary niches are provided in each chapel for future devotional apparitions as may be desired by the distinct ethnic communities within this large and diverse parish. The most significant piece of statuary commissioned for the church is a custom stainless steel corpus on a 13-foot tall wooden cross, suspended from the roof structure above and just behind the altar table. The imposing size of this image of Christ crucified properly focuses the visually complex interior at the sanctuary.
In my next article I will present some of the more “concrete” details of the church design, some specific challenges we faced, and the solutions we employed to create this unique volume of worship space.
Photos provided by Stephen A. Lucchesi.
Stephen A. Lucchesi, AIA is an architect with HBL Architects, Houston, Texas, USA.
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