April 30, 2012 by: Li Tong

As one of many native Chinese who were born in mid 80s and raised in central China, I had little exposure to religion or places of religious worship. If you had asked me “what is a church” several years ago, my answer probably would be a gothic cathedral with large stained glass windows, long somber corridors and loud ringing bells or a similar architype from history. Most of my early knowledge about churches came from western literature. In classic books such as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame or The Count of Monte Cristo, Churches are often described in detail as a setting where charaters confront their past misdeeds.

Although I never saw a church in my hometown, I felt that a church must be a sacred site full of mystery, where people may easily find spiritual inspiration and perception. Churches in western culture might be similar to temples in China. But while a temple is a place for individual rituals, a church is more often a place for people to gather in worship.
 church temple in china resized 600                            Kuan Yin Temple, Jingshan, China

It was not until I went to college in Wuhan, China to study architecture did I began to learn about the church as a specific building type. For the first time those unfamiliar words from the literature such as “buttress,” “labyrinth”, “altar” began to make some sense. The Cathedral of Cologne, Chapelle de Ronchamp, Istanbul's Hagia Sophia…these famous churches were no longer just tourism attractions from travel channels or magazines but also extraordinary architectural wonders.

My third-year studio in urban design provided me with a great opportunity to visit some historic buildings in the city of Wuhan, including a few historic churches. These churches were built during colonial times and looked very similar as their European predecessors in style, massing, materials, space and decorative details. But since Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are the major religions in China, these churches were kept mostly as historic landmarks rather than places of religious worship. Their venerable and solemn environment made them appealing to some young people for special events, such as weddings. But these were largely non-religious events. In most cases, the church buildings I encountered in China were poorly maintained and largely ignored. 
 church in china resized 600Huayuanshan Catholic Church, Wuhan, China
My interest in historic sites and architecture led me to study historic preservation in the US.  I got the chances to visit both historic and contemporary churches and now I work at Heimsath Architects who are experts in the field of church design. I have learned that creating a spiritual space is not as easy as following a design recipe.  Building a church takes a combination of conceptual thinking and architetural shaping in tune with a spirit-filled community.

I recently participated with our clients at Leander United Methodist Church in developing a master plan that includes a new sanctuary on their historic property.  I listened closely as the community shared their experiences and exchanged stories about the church during the Community Forum and Design Retreat Workshop.  They expressed their different opinions and ideas on the design of the new building.  When it came to their existing historic sanctuary, nearly all of them showed strong desire to restore it for continuing use as a chapel.

In saving the old church, the group was not only showing respect to the past, but actually anchoring the concept for the new church.  Together, both structures will reflect a spiritual interpretation that feels both contemporary and traditional. But unlike those European Cathedrals I visited in China, the heritage will continue to be an integral part of the congregation’s faith life.

Even though I am still as an outsider when it comes to religion, I can feel the power and spirit a church brings to its community. What’s more important, as an architectural professional, I now have the chance to help shape a church – an environment not only about form, shape and space but also about people and spirit.

What is a church - Leander UMC master plan

                       Leander United Methodist Church Master Plan

Holy Place/ Worship Space/ Sacred Architecture/ Church Design & Construction