Architect: Marlon Blackwell Architect
Project Location: Springdale, Arkansas, USA
Owner/Client: Saint Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church
Project Team: Marlon Blackwell, FAIA [principal] Jon Boelkins Bradford Payne Gail Shepherd Meryati Johari Blackwell Stephen Reyenga
Photographs: Timothy Hursley, Don Lourie, Marlon Blackwell Architect
After a lengthy search for property, the congregation of Saint Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church found a three acre site in Springdale, Arkansas, bordered to the east by a large public park and exposed to a major highway to the west. After a lengthy debate about the merits of the existing house and steel-framed shop building, the decision was made to repurpose the shop building into a new worship space. The existing shop building had three high lift garage doors, a small mezzanine for storage, and an office. The mezzanine and the office were completely removed, as was the western facade to allow for a larger mezzanine and a ten foot wide addition across the entire length of the west elevation. The steel frame was in only one location to allow for the introduction of a tower element that highlights the entry to the sanctuary. The building is enveloped by a new skin of box-ribbed metal panels and colored glass openings: the original gabled form is obscured and refined. Although a small structure, its bold form, surface and symbols make it recognizable both day and night from the nearby interstate.
While traditional Eastern Orthodox Churches are axial and face east, the rectangular shop building was oriented north-south. Although there are liturgical provisions for “reorienting” a worship space that is unable to face east, the program was simply folded to allow for the proper orientation. Rather that adhering to the traditional axial progression, the narthex is folded 90 degrees to the axis of the sanctuary space so that parishioners are delivered to the east-west axis once they arrive in the sanctuary. This subtle compromise allows for a very minimal addition in order to accommodate the program, dignified by a long suspended piece of millwork made of local white oak that embraces the ritual of lighting prayer candles and paying respect to saints en route to worship. As one passes through the candle-lit narthex, the ceiling gradually descends above a floor of oak, compressing the visitor before passing under the sky- lit tower that marks the entry into the sanctuary oriented to the east. The tower is lit by a skylight and houses a cross facing west filled with red glass, backlit by the eastern sun each morning and artificially illuminated at night to be visible from the adjacent highway.
At the east end of the sanctuary, the ceiling is carved away to allow for a 30 foot wide transom of translucent glass that bathes the sanctuary in soft light for morning services. The iconostasis, the screen wall between the sanctuary and the altar area representing the separation between heaven and earth, is the one vertical surface that is articulated in great detail. It features hand- painted and gilded icons representative of the separation of heaven and earth. Two hidden operable panels in the iconostasis allow for the priest to pass through while performing rituals according to the church’s liturgy. The sanctuary also features a dome, fashioned from arepurposed satellite dish, inverted and plastered, then inscribed with the image of the ‘pantocrator,’ the image of Christ rising as the sun in the east.
The oak floor and the dome of the sanctuary reflect a strategy in which the interior vertical surfaces of the church are bathed in light with color accents with limited articulation. In contrast, the horizontal surfaces are expressive, revealing priorities and hierarchies. In the fellowship hall, the original concrete slab and the roof structure of the metal shop building are exposed, revealing the origins of the building. The exposed insulation and steel structure were simply painted black while the original shop lights were relocated to illuminate the fellowship hall. Adjacent to the fellowship hall are new services, including restrooms and a kitchen, while the mezzanine above houses a large multi-purpose space and Father John’s office, which overlooks the narthex.
Although regular services draw approximately 80 visitors, holiday services draw twice as many. Rather than design the sanctuary for the greater number, one wall of the sanctuary has two large sections that swing open to the fellowship hall. These operable walls stow completely allowing for the fellowship hall to be used for overflow seating during holiday services. This flexibility allows reflects the modest budget and resourcefulness required of the design.
The congregation has grown by 30% since the new worship space has opened, fostering the dream of a larger sanctuary to be located on the same site to house 200 worshipers. The site plan was developed with the future phase in mind, employing a sensitive parking strategy, one that kept parking to the side and rear of the church, contrary to the typical practice of wide bands of parking between the street and the building. Instead, a large ‘plaza’ is formed which will eventually be framed to the south by the new sanctuary space. For now, the graphic white elevation serves as a billboard for the church, its profile easily seen and identified from the highway. It is a small church with a large presence despite being surrounded by numerous larger churches.