Sacred Space, Shared Space
Two of Mel McGowan's earliest memories are bombs exploding in Saigon during the Vietnam War and then, a few months later, gazing at the lights of Main Street USA at Disneyland. The juxtaposition of those scenes was, in his words, the start of his "weird wiring." McGowan was born to an American G.I. father and his Vietnamese wife near the end of the Vietnam War but was raised primarily in Germany. McGowan became a Christian in high school when his family moved to California. He then followed his best friend to film school with plans to influence the world through movies. But McGowan was soon drawn to architecture and urban planning courses.
After graduation he went to work for Disney designing a number of the entertainment company's properties, including Downtown Disney. McGowan now serves as the president of Visioneering Studios, a leading design firm for churches and ministries. Rather than communicating through movies, he found his calling by communicating through sacred space.
Leadership's Marshall Shelley and Brandon O'Brien met McGowan in Los Angeles, where he showed how sacred space reinforces and transmits a congregation's values.
You believe churches need to think about facilities in new ways. Why?
Most church leaders—and even most architects—hold a false dichotomy about church buildings. One view is the high church model that tries to rebuild the Temple. They use ascension, whether with steps or ramps, and filtered light through stained glass, and other techniques to induce a sense of sacredness.
The opposing view is what seems like Quaker or Puritan asceticism, emphasizing functionality and thrift in church design. "We're not spending anything on these facilities. We just need to keep the rain off our heads."
And the problem with the functional approach is …
What I call "Midwestern multi-useless gymnatoriums." Their primary purpose is to hold lots of people, and get them in and out quickly. If that's all you want, then a big aluminum building is all you need.
But the purpose of sacred space is to lift the spirits and inspire by pointing people toward eternity. That's what makes the experience of being in a cathedral so powerful.
When I hear "inspire," I think "expensive." Can sacred space be economical?
Sure. People often feel more connected with the Creator of the universe in nature than in an opulent manmade facility. Sacred space can maximize God's architecture—the natural landscape around the facility—to great effect.
What's an example of functional and inspirational being combined successfully?
A biblical example is the tabernacle, basically a tent in the wilderness. It was very practical. But everything meant something. There was intentionality behind every material choice and every sculptural choice. The primary concern wasn't occupancy but telling a narrative and conveying meaning.