The Elements of Orthodox Architecture in Secular Buildings

If I may ask my readers’ indulgence, I would like to present one of my projects that is, emphatically, not Orthodox liturgical art. In full disclosure, it is a temple of another, quite secular, liturgy – the buying and selling of craft beer and fine wine. But, before you admonish me for writing about a beer store in a liturgical arts journal, I would remind you that we have periodically published stories about how the Orthodox liturgical arts can bring beauty and redemption to the secular world. Sacred choral music performed in secular concert halls is an obvious example, and Vladimir Gorbik’s new orchestra, performing Classical symphonic music with an Orthodox-informed performance technique, is a more subtle one. So, if liturgical music can be a good influence on the secular arts, then liturgical architecture can as well.

The project I would like to share with you turned out to be an ideal opportunity to realize many of the principals of Orthodox Church design that I have written about in the past. In many ways, it better manifests them than a typical church-building project could. In that I was given a generous budget, and a free hand to design every aspect of the building as I saw fit (no building committee, thank God!), I was able to design with a purity and consistency that is rarely possible in church work.

The project began in 2015. The idea was to move an existing retail business – the Charleston Beer Exchange – next door to Edmund’s Oast, an upscale brewpub with a Colonial-era theme. The new store would sell craft beer and fine wine from around the world, and would offer growlers of the exceptional beer brewed next door. The restaurant had already built some porches using timber frame, and they had the idea to do the retail building using this construction system. The development company asked me to design the project due to my familiarity with timber frame.

One of the main principles I advocate for in church architecture is that all materials should be used honestly. They should be kept true to their nature, and not disguised as something they are not. This is why, for instance, I refuse to design a wood-framed church, and cover it with brick veneer or stucco to imitate a masonry church. Wood and masonry each have their own qualities, their own beauty.

So I began this project by saying that the timber frame should be exposed on the interior of the structure, fully expressing its skeletal structural nature, obviously doing its job of supporting the floors and roof. The exterior would be encased in a masonry shell, the perfect material for exposure to weather, a solid and fortress-like envelope around the precious and fragile goods within.

I insisted that the wooden frame and the masonry shell be built completely authentically, each true to its structural nature. The timber frame is mortised, pegged, and braced, an elaborate web of columns and beams supporting the entire weight of the building. The masonry walls are solid and heavy – thick columns support real brick arches, carrying weight to the ground the way masonry construction has for millennia. And the ironwork – the stairs, chandeliers, even the conduits and sprinkler pipes – are allowed to express their nature as well, all thin and black, completely different from wood or stone.

Another principle of Orthodox architecture is its quality of light. The Orthodox liturgy is an introverted experience, so windows are few and up high. The light is allowed to stream into the center of the church, but the side aisles are kept darker, for layering and mystery – the expression of eternity. It seemed to me that this same quality of light would be ideal for this retail store. Since the walls would all be lined with shelving, windows would be problematic. So I designed a cupola to let light in from above, and an open atrium in the second floor so that it could reach all the way down. And I hung in the center an iron chandelier with low-wattage bulbs – the very same kind I make for churches (except that I replaced the usual crosses with beer bottles, may God forgive me!). This gives a warm glow to the center of the space, that sacred quality of light that is so comforting in church and in home alike.

The introverted beauty of this architecture is quite interesting. Upon entering the store, one instantly forgets about the world outside. The store manager tells me that several people have said they just want to move in and live in there. (I don’t think they get this comment at Walgreens.) I myself have noticed people’s odd behavior there – that they choose their purchases, and then don’t leave – they just stand there looking around, seeming slightly disoriented, until a clerk asks them if they’re ready to check out. It is very much the same way people don’t leave at the end of an Orthodox service, but just linger in the beauty there, insulated from the cares of the world. I am tempted to tell the store patrons that if they like it there, then come to church!

Another principle of Orthodox architecture (and all good architecture for that matter) is that it makes use of local materials and local traditions of craftsmanship. Charleston, SC, is, in many ways, America’s most historic city, so there is a lot to work with here. We had the timber frame built by faculty and students of the American College of the Building Arts, the nation’s only 4-year college that grants degrees in traditional construction arts. Their campus is only a few blocks from the store, and the project put their talents to wonderful use. (Incidentally, I believe it is the first fully timber-framed building built in downtown Charleston in modern times). I specified that all the wood should be Southern Yellow Pine, our local timber, with a clear oil finish to show off its natural beauty. The same craftsmen made all the shelving and furniture to my exact specifications, with the hundreds of turned spindles hand-made by a local wood turner.

The masonry was an interesting challenge. I really wanted it to look like the exterior of a historic Charleston building, with brick detailing. But solid brick walls are not earthquake compliant. So I designed the walls in concrete block, reinforced and grouted solid, with brick coursing imbedded into the blockwork. The brick is local handmade material, probably around a hundred years old, reclaimed from some old building and bought at a nearby salvage yard.

I had to teach the masons how to build real load-bearing arches. We did it the ancient way, building wood centering and laying the bricks across, using compass-lines to keep the courses concentric. The use of mismatched old bricks kept it from being too perfect – the usual downfall of modern construction. When it came to the stucco, I always insist on some irregularities, so you can see the human touch of the craftsmen who applied it. My usual solution to this is to tell the masons to make it look like an old church in Mexico, and then they know just what I want.

There’s lots more I could say about the project. There were some significant bureaucratic challenges – getting it approved by the Board of Architectural Review that has to approve any construction in the historic district, and engineering a flood proofing system, since it’s only 11 feet above sea level. But most importantly, I was moved to see how happy all the workmen were to be a part of project like this. They all took great pride in their work, and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to build something really beautiful. The project seemed like a small piece of redemption of the construction industry and the built environment.

Though it is not a church, I would hope this project gives us all some inkling of how beautiful our churches could be if they were built according to these sensible principles of design and construction.

By Andrew Gould 

Source: https://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/the-principles-of-orthodox-architecture-expressed-in-a-secular-building/