Church Renovation as A Joint Venture between Architect and Congregation

by Dr. Dieter Langmaack

When I am asked to serve as architect for a building project such as the renovation of St. John's Church in Lüchow, I usually approach the assignment in four steps.

First of all, I take up the role of church Building Inspector.  Here I look for cracks in the walls, stains on the walls and ceilings, and problems resulting from poor insulation.  I also listen for problems with the heating system, and I take note of other general building and structural defects.

My next task as church architect is to function as Art Historian.  As such, I take note of  what periods are represented in the various parts of the church building and how the interior appointments such as the altar, the baptistery,  the pulpit, and the other components fit together.  I also observe how the various items reflect different time periods and building styles  - for example, whether unadorned panels on the pulpit represent a puritanical dislike of artistic decoration.

My next step as architect involves serving as a Church Builder - one who puts himself in the role of pastors in their liturgical function, their preaching, and their other worship responsibilities - as well as in the role of members of the congregation.  I check to see if a given area can accommodate several different activities, or if it presents logistical difficulties, such as in the
Lüchow church where the main altar is a distance of some 35 meters away from the back rows of pews - an obvious impediment.

The fourth step for the architect of such a building project is to take up the task of a Visionary.
I try to imagine how the available space for such a renovation might best be utilized and how  both the interior and exterior of the church building would appear after significant alteration.

Here, of course, I rely on drawings and models, but I must also rely on a sort of innate intuition before the individual designs and sketches are executed.

Of course, the architect is not just working with several colleagues in the office to meet the various challenges; he must also cooperate with all the other people involved in the church renovation project.  Specifically, he must work closely with the pastors, others on the Worship Committee, members of the congregation and their Church Council and with the congregation's Advisory Council, as well as with the administrative authorities of the Regional Church's Commission for Building and Art Preservation which in matters of financing has the last word, and finally with the local authorities such as the Building Authority or Historic Preservation Commission.

Through such cooperation different proposals will emerge and be tested.  Alternatives will be compared so that the architect's vision for the future and the congregation's resulting wishes for "their church" will converge.  So it went with the planning for the renovation at St. John's Church in Lüchow prior to my appointment.  In early 1990, several guidelines for the work of the architect were proposed at a meeting between the Church Council and the pastoral staff.

The following results of this lengthy planning process are set forth here:

The most significant and important alteration of the church's floor-plan will be a proposed new worship center which will also be at the visual center of the church and no longer at the far end of the 19-meter deep chancel.  Near where the pulpit has stood there will be a new altar or "Lord's Table" as a locus for the celebration of  Holy Communion.

An artistically designed lectern is to be created  to stand alongside and to harmonize with the elevated pulpit.  Just in front of the new altar toward the congregation, the baptistery is to now serve as a bold new focus in the middle of the nave.  Here an Easter cross will be anchored in the pavement, a cross which does not so emphasize the Good Friday suffering and death of our Lord, but rather, the Easter joy and the Easter victory of Christ over death and the devil.

The proposed cross is to be a plain cross without corpus which is to be surrounded by seven candlesticks in a circular pattern to symbolize eternity.  By the end of the year the initial design of these very important pieces are to be completed, and at that point a model can be displayed.

An integral feature of the proposed worship center will be the new location of the baptistery  which, standing between the new altar and the congregation, will be highly visible.

On the north wall a somewhat modest central doorway is to be built to provide a new entrance into the church.  This doorway, serving as the new main entrance, will provide the congregation with an attractive courtyard just outside the church - a veritable bit of paradise, similar to those often found at many old Romanesque church buildings.  Just inside the entrance, the 1417 bronze baptismal font will welcome visitors into the church with its clear message: "baptistatus sum" (I am baptized).

On the south wall of the church opposite the entrance there is to be a small, inviting meditation area where perhaps devotional candles might be lighted during the day.  Here a person would be able to sit quietly in prayer and meditation and have opportunity to read away from the noise of the city in a peaceful atmosphere of churchly rest.

Both the entryway and the meditation area are to be beneath a balcony with a curved staircase leading to the nave and also leading to the existing balcony on the south wall which is similar to the balcony newly proposed for the north wall of the nave.  There is good possibility of creating much-needed rooms beneath these two large balconies.  Perhaps a kitchenette can be built there or a wheelchair-accessible toilet and cloakroom.  A large storage room like a sacristy or custodian's room is envisioned beneath the new north balcony so that equipment will no longer have to be stored under the platform beneath the main altar.

Finally, technical equipment must be replaced.  The boiler must be updated, and its capacity and mechanical function adjusted to meet the needs of the congregation.  Something also should be done for the acoustics so that long reverberations do not cause problems.  Also, new equipment is needed for broadcasting the service to the nearby nursing home and for providing amplification for the hard of hearing.

Additionally, the natural stone flooring must be repaired.  It is envisioned that new, multi-hued flooring will be installed in the altar and baptistery area, as well as in the area leading to the altar.

The church is to have a new color scheme wherein the present unaccented gray barrel vaulting will be painted to match a previous color scheme which afforded greater definition to its arc-shaped elements.  The natural wood  of  the ceiling over the aisles will be exposed, increasing visibility underneath the large existing balconies.

Furthermore, attempts will be made to cover over the gray of the balconies with a natural wood-tone stain.

Lastly, a difficult decision will have to made over whether to put chairs in place of the rows of pews which so dominate the color scheme.  Chairs would offer more flexibility for use with different forms of worship (or for sitting at a table and sitting in a circle).

Lighting also must be modernized so that new uses proposed for exhibits and other functions in the areas along the sides of the church may better be utilized.

To be sure, further investigation and discussion are needed before construction work can begin.  For me as architect and for my "clients for whom this is being built" ("Bauherrn"), the congregation of St. John's in Lüchow, this should continue as an intensive and fruitful collaborative process resulting in a renovated house of God - for the benefit of the congregation and to the glory of God.  To that end, God help us.

Floor plan for the proposed renovation of St. John's Church
Floor plan for the proposed renovation of St. John's Church