Using Volume and Light to Embody the Spiritual
by Raffi Arzoumanian
“It is only the presence of light and dark that matter: isolated from the material world, present in an expansive volume of space.”
Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe not. Maybe I noticed the plaque mounted in front of Philip Johnson’s Roofless Church in New Harmony, Indiana because I was starting to think about the design of the Elim Romanian Pentecostal church and Christian center as we were negotiating the contract.
As I started designing the church, this quotation was lingering in my head:
The program of the Elim church project was not unique, but what made the quotation and Johnson’s design approach relevant was the type of congregation. Similar to the Roofless Church, Elim does not use any of the historically established symbolism or icons of the Christian faith. Yet I felt that this nuance shouldn’t be an impediment for the building in communicating with the world and its members on a spiritual level.
The key would be to find a way to do this without needing to fall back on the two-dimensional storytelling that is customary in a traditional church.
I went back to the underlying guidelines of architecture: space, volume, light, and shadow. The church needed to be both internally focused for prayer and reflection and externally oriented for uplifting the spirits of all that approached the building.
I then conceived of a solid white mass of stone – completely monolithic – that houses the sanctuary; solid, defined, protected, and completely internally focused. I then proceeded to create openings closest to the sky where the roof meets the wall. This was to draw the eyes of the parishioner toward the light that is the promise of Christian faith.
There are no other references, no other points of orientation. The earthly directions do not matter in this state of being. It is only the presence of light and dark that matter: isolated from the material world, present in an expansive volume of space.
This approach resolved the spirituality of the sanctuary. Nothing else in this space mattered.
Then I proceeded to lift the mass of the windowless box that housed the sanctuary toward the sky, the direction toward which parishioners focus and raise their hands in worship.
This revealed the underside of the mass and allowed for an opening to invite the world in. The underside needed to touch the ground and define an interior space that would allow for all other functions of the building to culminate in the sanctuary. Clad in glass, this created a light and welcoming negative space that invites people in and also reaches up toward the sky, declaring the spiritual nature of the building.
At night, the glow of light from the interior spills out and radiates the spirituality and message of the building, just as the building itself draws light and people inside during the day. It is a balanced and unadorned expression of purpose and faith – proportionate but inspired by the limitlessness of open air, just as Philip Johnson’s Roofless Church was when dedicated in 1960.