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The AIA Interfaith Design (ID) Knowledge Community encourages and supports excellence in the design of worship spaces and their accoutrements. Interfaith Design is an association of professionals whose primary interest is religious facilities in a broad array of traditions. We value an interfaith forum for the exchange of ideas relating to religion, art, and architecture. Join us!

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Case Study: Huaxiang Christian Community Center

By Cameron T. Bird AIA posted 05-28-2020 15:02

  
Interfaith Design's Knowledge Resources Committee is pleased to present a series of monthly case studies based on selected award winners from the annual Faith and Form/Interfaith Design International Religious Art and Architecture Design Awards. Please enjoy and share!

The Christian church has been challenged from the beginning to live in the world, but set apart from the world. This state of spiritual being has been reflected, since the Roman Empire legalized Christianity, in the buildings that the church has built. Completed in 2018 in Fuzhou, China, the Huaxiang Christian Community Center embraces its role as the church made manifest.

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Entrance - Photo credit: INUCE/Shi Kai

INUCE Architects faced a challenging brief to expand the campus of a historic church, built in 1938, to accommodate the parish's ten-fold growth since the Cultural Revolution. The site is hemmed in by large buildings. It is located off the street. Floor area is restricted. Height is limited. This burgeoning church needed room to grow beyond its physical and legal limitations.

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Overall site with mansion, church, and Center in neighborhood context - Photo credit: INUCE/Shi Kai

Despite these constraints, the Christian Community Center beckons passersby into its welcoming precinct. The undulating roofline is the first signal that something special awaits on the interior of the run-of-the-mill block of commercial buildings. The Center is tucked behind a mansion from the 1800s - the church's first meeting place - and nestled beside the historic church. The massing of the 7500 square meter program is concentrated toward the rear of the site, allowing the Center's scale to be sensitively reduced adjacent to the church. The peaks of the parapet are reminiscent of the gabled church typology, but can be sensed, even from the ground, to contain something more. The provocative roofline is reflected and reinforced by the building massing, with four edges of the building pinched in the middle. The effect of this pinch is twofold:  the concavities in the middle of the façade create pockets for arrival and gathering, while the resulting acute corners further reduce the heft of the prows above. It is a sculptural gesture that is both generous and humble.

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Corner and window detail with historic church - Photo credit: INUCE/Shi Kai

The Community Center's plasticity is carried throughout the project, reflected in form, material, and detailing. The sinuous roofline and massing are echoed by the connection between wall and window. A continuous ribbon of steel plate winds across the solid mass of the wall, pulling the wall up like a curtain, alternately delineating the tall, arching windows and suspending the finish just above the ground. The exterior is rendered in pebbledash, an expressive, durable blend of granite aggregate (matching the historic church) embedded in a pink epoxy mortar, lending the Center its bold hue. The tumbled stones of this modernized traditional finish invite human touch. Dirk U. Moench, Principal of INUCE, explains that the "infinitude of pebbles translates into matter the dual nature of the word 'Church', which refers not only to the single building itself, but also to the sum of all individual Christians which compose it." The living stones of the church body are symbolized by the stones bound together on the church building.

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Central Hall - Photo credit: INUCE/Shi Kai

The program of the Center revolves around the central hall. In contrast to the irregular trapezoidal geometry of the building overall, the hall is laid out as a regular Roman cross. The hall is arranged as a nave and side aisles, with a crossing aisle at the midpoint. Its interior is finished richly, but simply. Dark wood pews sit on a gray marble floor, and liturgical furniture in a similar dark finish is arranged on a white marble chancel platform. The dark furnishings contrast in tone with stark white walls, columns, and ceiling, while the regulating lines of the pews and chancel establish a framework against their sculpted enclosure. Serpentine galleries snake above the side aisles, and even the pipes of the organ billow in waves, making the cross float above the chancel. A smooth, flowing ceiling hovers as a cloud above the assembly. The triangular oculus, one of several allusions to the Trinity, descends above the crossing. The Central Hall is a light-filled volume, with tall windows opposite the chancel opening toward the historic church. The ceiling in surrounding spaces is rendered in slats with a mahogany finish, floating in a glowing reveal. This darker, lower, ceiling further enhances the lightness of the hall. In the triangle of the narthex, the slats bend and flex dramatically above a constellation-like pendant to capture the full height of the windows at the entrance, emphatically sending the church out into the world and gracefully welcoming the world in.

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Central Hall, view toward historic church - Photo credit: INUCE/Shi Kai

Narthex - Photo credit: INUCE/Shi Kai


The world can be taken in from the rooftop amphitheaters as well. Atop the Community Center, the dynamic roofline opens into two elevated plazas The lower amphitheater is open to the public as a viewing platform and event space. Seating is cradled by the upturned corners of the mass below, which simultaneously allows inward focus and outward gaze. The upper level is privately accessed and is used by the church for open-air services and gatherings. From this vantage point, one is at the same height as the bell tower, once the highest point in the neighborhood. The elevated outdoor spaces cascade down toward the historic church, providing a visual connection to the physical history of the church and the community.

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Upper amphitheater - Photo credit: INUCE/Shi Kai

The success of the Huaxiang Christian Community Center is well summarized by Mr. Moench: "It has truly become a living part of the city centre: until late at night you can see children running about and elderly sitting on the benches chatting as you hear the choir rehearsing in the hall…This positive public acceptance is the essence, and it is a true game changer in a country where churches used to hide behind walls."

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