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Designing the Worship Space: A Central-Plan Model for Today’s Church

Dedication Ceremony at St. Thomas More Catholic Church | Photo by RMA Photography

Posted by Robert Habiger

Robert Habiger is a liturgical design consultant and architect who has dedicated his career to the design of religious architecture. In this essay in support of the central-plan approach, he reviews the two principal paradigms for worship space design, shares examples to explain the differences between them, and explains three architectural design characteristics that he still uses today.

Robert originally presented this information in a webinar for the Association of Consultants for Liturgical Space.


As both a Liturgical Design Consultant and an Architect I have had the opportunity to design numerous places of worship and devotion. These projects are always emotionally charged for parishioners because of the profound, meaningful, and spiritual experiences that occur in these environments.

Creating significant spaces such as these requires an awareness of church design, its precedents, and the underlying liturgical requirements of the denomination.

For any worship space design there are two interweaving attributes that contribute to the final design: the theology and liturgy.

We should easily understand that different theological viewpoints will measurably affect the design of a worship environment. In concert with theology is liturgy. In addressing liturgy, a healthy respect for the current liturgical documents of the denomination is mandatory.

Worship Design Archetypes

There are two primary archetypes for the design of a worship space - the templs and meeting house. Another common reference is the House for God and House for the People of God. I further define these two archetypes as creating either a two-room or one-room space.

In simplified terms, the temple archetype establishes a hierarchically dependent two-room space, while the meeting house archetype establishes a unified one-room space.

floor plan of temple archetype

Temple and Meeting House archetype diagrams.

The main feature of the temple is the pronounced physical separation between the sanctuary and nave. Typically in this archetype there is an implied axis and a singular focus which terminates the space. Proponents say that it is in keeping with tradition, reflects Catholic identity, and provides the correct functionality and symbolism for the church.

Conversely, the meeting house archetype does not put space between the celebration and assembly areas. Because of the multiple liturgical focuses in the space, there is no need for a defined axis, although one can exist. This one-room space is typically referred to as a Central-Plan space. Such an approach is what I believe the post-Vatican II Church documents have promoted. For example, Built of Living Stones states this major guiding design principle this way: “the community worships as a single body united in faith”.

Pre-Vatican II Church designs are not the right solution for Today’s Church

This question of how to design a worship space for our current time has to begin with looking at the influence that pre-Vatican II spaces continue to have with regard to church design. While the liturgical renewal of Vatican-II instilled a complete shift in theology and liturgy, a design shift from the temple to meeting house archetype has not been a fast transition.

The typical pre-Vatican II worship space separated the congregation from the sanctuary and established a hierarchy of spaces. Often referred to as the Basilica Plan, this was the norm for hundreds of years. This history has reinforced the belief that these type of spaces still express the truths and mysteries of the church; however, there are many reasons these spaces do not work well for the post-conciliar reformed liturgy.

An example of a pre-Vatican II space

An example of a pre-Vatican II space. Photo by Robert Habiger.

Since Vatican II, too often the de facto solution for designing a post-conciliar space has been the fan-shaped plan. While this design approach places the assembly closer to the sanctuary, there still is an implied separation between assembly and sanctuary. This occurs because the sanctuary becomes a stage-like setting, or it occurs through material changes, furniture dissonance, art placement, and lighting choices.

If a fan-shaped space limits active participation, does the central-pan increase active participation? That is precisely what I believe!

Active participation comes about when we encounter each other and the sacraments in a setting that inspires a unified prayer space. This cannot happen when physical and psychological separations exist between the assembly and the places of liturgical celebration.

Examples of the Temple and Meeting House Archetypes

Three examples can serve to express the differences between these two theological points of view. The Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston, TX exemplifies the Temple archetype. While dedicated in 2008, it was designed in a pre-Vatican II schema with a small narthex, long nave, and terminating sanctuary. The dome over the transept and stand-alone bell tower further define the temple archetype. For sure there are modern touches to the design, such as open ended pews and the clean-crisp lines of the limestone faced columns. But the long nave space and prominent sanctuary artwork clearly denotes a two-room space, even though there is no communion rail present.

A North American Cathedral currently in the planning stage is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption in Port-au-Prince Haiti to replace the cathedral that was lost in their devastating earthquake. The design rendering of the cathedral exterior exudes a temple archetype, which actually is very appropriate for its urban setting. But when one examines the floor plan, it becomes clear that the essence for this new cathedral is to establish a House for the People of God by placing the altar in the exact center of the assembly. I applaud the church of Haiti for selecting this design from the multitude of submissions they received in a design completion that was held for the Cathedral’s replacement. I believe the winning design accurately reflects Vatican II theology and liturgy.

One further example, I want to highlight is The Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Dodge City, Kansas. I had the honor to be the architect and liturgical design consultant for this project. The principles of a two-room vs. one-room space were explored in our design discussions with the parish community and diocesan leadership. From the floor plan you can see that the sanctuary is central to the assembly seating, however, the design conveys both the temple and meeting house archetypes. A one-room, House for the People of God archetype is made present at the interior, while the stand-alone bell tower and expressive gabled roof over the worship space express a House for God archetype at the exterior.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Photo by Rob Henry.

These three cathedral projects demonstrate how different theological perspectives impact the design of a worship space. The temple archetype reflects a long history of pre-conciliar spaces that receive credence because of a desire to connect with God. I have recently read that church beauty comes from its architectural form and symbolic message. This was stated in an article in support of a return to pre-Vatican II church designs. Interestingly, this statement also applies to the design of a worship environment that follows a meeting house archetype.

A worship space design can exhibit either or both archetypes. The key is to know the essence of each, and then to work to develop a design that fits church requirements. In my study of the liturgical documents, I believe this points to the use of a one-room central-plan model so as to create a House for the People of God, but also to embrace parts of the House for God archetype so as to have a historical connection to the broader church.

With this understanding of the differences between the one-room and two-room worship archetypes, there is also need to examine the principal architectural design characteristics which are to follow the liturgical church documents.

I have established three broad categories – Mystery, Environment, and Encounter - that I refer to as themes. These themes provide for me a way to approach design with clear insight rather than rigid standards. At the intersection of these three themes are the spiritual, emotional, and physical influences that inhabit a worthy place for worship and devotion. I initially developed the three themes from an examination of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. This was in 1986-87, as part of my masters of architecture studies. To this day I use these three themes when designing worship and devotional spaces.

Religious Architecture Theme Integration

The Mystery Theme

The Mystery theme denotes the spiritual and faith connections that occur between people and God. Mystery is first understood as the awe that is experienced in the space. This experience of wonder is derived from the presence of something extraordinary that takes us out of our normal, everyday experience. We become emotionally connected to the place through our human experiences and memory of previous sacred events. Mystery must exist in our places of worship and within the context of the renewed liturgy.

Some examples for how mystery can be experienced: a candlelight service, the seeing and smelling of incense, and the seeing of ever-changing patterns and color of light from a stained glass window.

Woman being baptized

Woman being baptized, courtesy of St. Thomas More Catholic Church.

Mystery requires us to make our primary symbols visible and accessible to the assembly. Can we see and experience the bread and wine? Is the sanctuary platform so elevated above the assembly that you cannot see the bread and wine residing on the altar, until it is elevated? Another primary symbol is water. The question I always ask a parish, will the waters of baptism fully express the mystery of being reborn in Christ.

The mystery theme also relates to design of devotional spaces. The ability to interact with a devotional statue is an important aspect of the mystery theme. An intimate personal experience with religious and devotional art can evoke the sense of sacredness, spirituality, and mystery.

The Environment Theme

Quite simply the environment theme relates to the design and organization of all the worship and devotional spaces. This is an important issue and must not be taken lightly. The question I ask — which archetype am I designing for and why? Along with developing the overall plan, the environment theme is concerned with the placement of liturgical furniture, appointments, and objects of service.

For me, I begin with where the altar will be placed in the worship space. Of course, as I have already stressed, the central-plan is my starting point. Built of Living Stones states that the celebration of the Eucharist is the center of the entire Christian life and that we all gather as one Body of Christ. We can look to history as an example for this important understanding of Eucharist. A 4th century fresco of the Last Supper serves as an example for how a worship space should be organized. Here, Christ and the Apostles sit in a circle rather than on one side of the table. I submit this is a compelling historical example for how the worship space should be arranged.

floor plan showing ambo and altar

Floor plan showing ambo and altar at Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

When designing the worship environment we also need to be conscious for how we welcome all into this place we call church. I use the term equivalent experience to denote that we should provide a processional pathway that everyone uses. Do you make a person in a wheelchair, walker or cane use a ramp that is hidden and behind the sanctuary platform? No! The processional path to and from the sanctuary should be designed to accommodate everyone.

When thinking of the environmental theme it is not just about arranging the worship and devotional spaces. It includes how the entire building is designed. The responsibility of the consultant and architect is to help “parish members to understand the nature of the liturgy, the space it requires, and the ways in which the parish building can help or hinder worship.” Ultimately, the environment theme is the tool used to create a one-room worship space so as to establish the House for the People of God, the principle celebrants of the Liturgy.

The Encounter Theme

Of the three themes, the encounter theme is the most critical regarding the design of a post-conciliar worship space. That is because this theme gets at the heart of how people experience these spaces. At its most basic level, the encounter theme relates to how the sacraments are revealed in the worship environment. Can we connect to them at a deeper spiritual level; can they lead us to greater spirituality; can we become more active in our participation? At another level the encounter theme helps us to remember to create spaces that are inclusive rather than exclusive.
 
One example of realizing the encounter theme is to make certain there is sufficient room for sacramental action. I use ritual mapping of the rites and rituals to understand how the space will function and create appropriate encounters. Do we have the correct aisle width? Do we have the right number of aisles? Do we have sufficient space for the various rites and rituals of the Church? Can ministers move with ease, or are they constricted? Because when we create even a small amount of chaos, attention is drawn to the individual rather than to Christ who is represented in their ministry role.

Church rites and rituals

Communion at St. Francis of Assisi in San Antonio, TX. Photo by Robert Habiger.

The encounter theme emphasizes that we should see each other at the celebration. Why? Because, each person, represents the Body of Christ.

While a central-plan model may be a seating arrangement parishioners have not experienced, parishioners using these environments report that it connects them in a deeper spiritual way to each other and the Sacraments. This seating arrangement does not cause a distraction to the Mass, rather it emphasizes that the Assembly completes the Mass.

Another example of the encounter theme is at the Liturgy of the Word. A profound encounter with the sacred occurs when a parishioner rises from their seat in the assembly, processes to the ambo, and proclaims the scriptural passage for the day. When this action occurs in the midst of the assembly, rather than be relegated to a place at the edge or greatly elevated above the assembly, a greater connection and encounter with the Word takes place.

The essence of the encounter theme is in understanding how the design can create greater opportunities for expressing our faith and liturgy.

The encounter theme also speaks to the need to create places that allow us to have a private spiritual experience. I remember the first time I lighted a candle for my Dad after he died. I encountered a deep sense of the sacred that I had not previously felt. To this day I both cherish and hold onto this repeatable memory.

To provide places for the Communion of Saints in our places of worship is to respond to all three themes of mystery, environment and encounter.

Conclusion

In the last several years I have seen the increasing return of the temple archetype for new cathedral and parish church buildings. In many modes this is a nostalgic desire for a greater spiritual connection with God. While I have pointed out that the meeting house archetype most reflects Vatican II theology and especially it’s liturgy, projects are being built in the pre-Vatican II vernacular because something is missing for many parishioners. I submit what is missing is not the need to build more temple-like spaces but to provide worship spaces that embrace a full and active participation in the sacraments.

I believe this can only be done at a deep spiritual level when the environment is correctly shaped — when awe is achieved not by articulating a dominant God, but a God made present in each person as the Body of Christ. We must continue to educate how the sacraments can be encountered in a fuller and more active way, which leads to greater mystery and connection with the sacred.

Another consistent argument has been that contemporary designed places of worship are either not beautiful or lack the symbolism of a sacred place. Typically the statement is that modern churches are lifeless. With such a pronouncement do they actually think that meaning comes from the viewing of artistic ornamentation rather than understanding that significance comes from the liturgy that happens in the place of worship?

Child at church.

I am reminded of an important question that Fr. Richard Vosko once posed to a group of consultants. He asked a simple question: "Can we design a scared space?"

His question is indicative of the philosophical divide between those who promote the temple vs. the meeting house archetypes. His response: “We can only design a place that may become sacred through the activities and actions that take place in that space."

I believe this is an accurate understanding for how we should consider our task of designing religious architecture.

It is my opinion that visual ornamentation alone is a short-sighted way to gain a connection to the sacred. In the end, it is the liturgical actions that occur in the worship spaces that leads to a sacred mystery that goes beyond the visual to a person’s very core. I strongly believe that architecture for a worship space can be modern in design, but more importantly, it needs to be authentic and a place where noble materials are used in its construction.

For sure there are other design criteria to consider, such as regional context, cultural influences, and parish history. But in all projects I find it helpful in my design of a worship space to use the architectural characteristics of mystery, environment, and encounter as articulated in a one-room, Central-plan archetype.

This then becomes a true House for the People of God.