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Contemporary American innovation, with a Korean interpretation

Prayer is an important part of Korean churches, and this one has 20 prayer rooms.

By Tom Greenwood

Inspiration for innovation can come from unexpected places. For a South Korean congregation, the spark for innovation was fueled by leading American churches’ missional architecture.

Shinkwang Church is a Presbyterian congregation of 8,000 worshipers each week, located in Iksan City. When the church had outgrown its property, a delegation from the congregation visited the U.S. to tour facilities of leading congregations. The goal was to discover how facilities could augment ministry and mission.

In late 2008, the congregation opened its new campus, designed by The Beck Group. The functions of worship, children and youth ministries are familiar, but the design solutions were anything but typical. The 500,000-square-foot facility features a 2,500-seat sanctuary, 300-seat chapel, multipurpose gym and wellness center, children and youth centers, cafeteria, bookstore, three indoor playgrounds, offices, an underground parking garage for 500 and an international-sized soccer field on top of the garage.

Going vertical

A congregation contemplating such an ambitious development would normally look for a large tract of land, perhaps in a newly developing suburb. Shinkwang had only seven acres, still one of the largest church parcels in Korea, in an already densely developed city. And while a typical suburban church might build 50,000 square feet on seven acres, the Shinkwang design provides 10 times that amount. Going vertical with a four-story structure, utilizing underground parking, and locating near mass transit stops was essential to reducing the footprint of the church.

Clarity of circulation and movement is designed to allow the campus to function vertically instead of just horizontally. Lobbies and corridors are roomy, but so are stairways. Thousands of people flow upward through massive sunlit-stairways, from underground parking and public transportation at the street level, to upper floors with ministry spaces.
Communicating relevance and authenticity to its culture was also important to Shinkwang Church. The four-story structure exhibits a powerful contemporary style with exposed concrete structure and use of composite metal panels. Yet the building is not cold to the touch.

Wood is a sacred natural element to Koreans, and it was incorporated in many forms through the building interior. Floors, furnishings, as well as special wall and ceiling treatments utilized wood. Cherry wood and granite native to the country were used to provide detail through the space, as was modern Asian styles of lighting and furnishings.

Many prayer closets

To support the daily prayer ministry of the church, so vital to many Korean Christians, 20 prayer rooms, totaling more than 20,000 square feet, were provided a prominent location. Rooms range in size from individual prayer “closets” to 200 person rooms for community prayer.

Significant investment was also made to make advanced technology a part of the everyday church life. HD video, sophisticated audio and LED theatrical lighting systems complement flexible functionality for worship and other ministries or public events.

Whether it’s innovative design to reduce carbon footprint, thinking vertical in facility function or connecting to its culture, Shinkwang Church offers a great example of innovative, transformational design. Even more importantly, churches everywhere can learn from the risk-taking attitude of the Shinwang congregation, which would not let traditional cultural ideas of ministry and church buildings limit their missional purpose.

Their risk is already being rewarded by a hugely positive response from the community, and other churches in Korea are taking notice.

“We have had so many visitors from other churches,” says Shinkwang’s senior pastor, Rev. Duck Soon Chang. “They have commented that our church has opened up a new chapter in Korean church facilities.”

Tom Greenwood, AIA, is director of Church Services at The Beck Group, a Dallas-based architecture and construction firm that serves churches throughout the world. [www.beckgroup.com]

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