By Paul Lodholz
Spaghetti stains are one factor deciding whether it’s chairs or pews in the worship center.
As an architect who has focused for many years on projects related to worship facilities, I find that there are always a few issues that produce lively debates and a good deal of emotion for those involved in the decision-making process.
Stained glass, statuary, ornament and art seem to be obvious but, interestingly, pews and chairs can sometimes bring just as much passion. I work with committees for most of my projects, and it is interesting to observe how many hours can be spent on a topic as seemingly mundane as pews or chairs. As an illustration I will share two projects that selected chairs and one that chose pews.
Pews as art
St. John Lutheran Church in Cypress, TX, completed a new sanctuary, and there was never a doubt that they would use pews, never. The decision was quite simple for them, even though the new space would be used both for their traditional and contemporary services.
It is often the more contemporary service setting that establishes a statement that “this is not your mother and father’s church.” Contemporary worship goals often allow for freedom and flexibility and options for how seats can be arranged in relation to the singers, preaching and altar. The predominant emotion for the leadership and congregation of St. John was the establishing of their long-awaited church home. This emotion trumped any thoughts of flexibility.
The nave, although developed with a gather around seating arrangement, a sloped floor and a significant chancel has very traditional pews. The style and character were seen to be a part of the overall aesthetic of the room. I find that when a church uses pews, one is given the opportunity to integrate the pews with the church’s architecture. The notion of furniture as art and an integral part of architecture and space are opportunities that can be developed by the use of pews.
Rich woods, fabric style and color, and even the use of iconography are all part of the decisions surrounding pews. St. John’s committee chose to use exposed wood seat backs with an ergonomically designed cushion for the seat and back areas.
The pews were designed in a traditional style with a full-end panel as opposed to the more contemporary cantilever-end style. Curiously enough this was a very belabored decision and one of the very few that went against the thoughts of the architect, who felt that the cantilever end was more true to the overall sense of the design.
St. John is delighted with their decision and I am sure the committee would encourage any congregation to decide as they have. Pews, only pews for their sanctuary, they wanted no part of chairs.
Chairs offer options
Two other Texas churches, Northeast Houston Baptist Church in Humble and Clear Lake United Methodist Church in Clear Lake, both chose chairs instead of pews. The decision for each of these churches was self-evident from the beginning, but for different reasons.
Clear Lake Methodist was building a room for multiple uses: for their contemporary worship service, as a fellowship hall, a conference center and a community performance room for country music and contemporary Christian concerts. Pews would simply have never worked for such diverse needs.
The chair chosen was a more formal chair, with a bit of style, at least as far as the committee was concerned. They felt that versatility did not trump a desire to have something that would be appropriate for worship and for a formal dinner. The only reason to make mention of their decision is that chair styles, quality, appearance, durability and cost pose many more potential options and therefore points of debate than pews.
A big factor is the complexity of program. Spaghetti sauce is not usually found in a traditional nave but certainly is in a multi-use room. Chair carts are not needed for pews that are bolted to the floor, but certainly are for the flexibility of expanding and contracting room settings. How many inches wide the chairs are, how high they stack, how easily they are moved are critical decisions that must be weighed along with fabric durability and yes, color.
Like St. John, Clear Lake members are very pleased with their new room and how they can arrange their chairs to meet a wide range of needs.
Northeast Houston Baptist also chose chairs for their new worship center. The room, a black box-style auditorium, seats 800 and houses their progressive contemporary worship style. The pastor wanted a room that would provide many options for seating arrangements, but in any setting would be perceived as informal, inviting and friendly. Pews are simply not a part of this church’s culture at this time.
It is interesting that in each of these cases, the choice to go with pew or chair was not a difficult one. All the fun in the process came after the initial decision was made in observing and guiding the group through the many decisions related to program need, architectural and aesthetic fit, and budgetary concern. Committees and architects must remember that the decision on seating is not one that will go unnoticed. In fact, it will be noticed for many, many years. Nothing makes a statement to a visitor like a stained, tattered chair or an old delaminated pew.
Paul Lodholz, AIA, LEED AP is senior principal and studio leader of the Worship Place Studio and the Learning Place Studio at Ziegler Cooper Architects, Houston, TX. He is an elder at his church and a Bible class teacher. www.ZieglerCooper.com