Better Buildings: Silicon Valley Alliance Church in Comparison

Some of my relatives attend Silicon Valley Alliance Church (SVAC) in Milpitas, at 10 Dempsey Street. This is the view shown by Google Maps:

Across Dempsey Road to the north is a strip mall, and across South Victoria Park Drive to the east, beyond another strip mall, is Ocean Supermarket.

Placed in this context, the church building could stand prominently among the strip malls as a place where God spoke, a place where people could seek his face. Instead, it is only one story tall, flatter and wider than it is tall. (The low ceiling and the carpeted floor also make for poor acoustics, which by nature discourage congregational singing.) The entrance used by most people to get to the worship service looks like this:

Much more, I think, could be done to make this look like a place where people worshipped God, rather than a generic building that might as well be called ‘Building’. Architecture serves not only physical needs but also the human need for context and orientation, and these are what the SVAC building does not give.

In contrast, look at the façade of St Thomas, Fifth Street, New York:

Front elevation plan of the church

The building cannot be mistaken for anything but a house of worship. Anyone who wants to worship God, or is thinking of worshipping God, is presented with just the thing. Any signs with the name of St Thomas Church are there only to confirm which church it is, not to announce that this is a place for the worship of God. As a landmark, then, St Thomas is far superior; with SVAC, which is in no way distinctive, there is no comparison.

One obvious thing about St Thomas is its very different proportions. Its nave is 43 feet wide between columns, and 95 feet from the pavement to the vault. The SVAC building, of course, need not be of such grand dimensions, but some height would enhance its presence in the neighbourhood. Indeed, substantial height in the presence of strip malls and a single-story supermarket would suggest God’s dominance over the immediate surroundings, which I think an unequivocal good. Perhaps a taller church building could even be seen by someone walking to or from Calaveras Hills High School, the local alternative high school, and later lead to opportunities for school chaplaincy. Though a prominent building is obviously unable to do any good on its own, it may help Christians minister to the city.

Floorplan_of_Saint_Thomas_Church_01

Besides height and landmarking, however, St Thomas also has other features that are instructive for any redesign of the SVAC building. At the bottom of the floorplan above, four vault bays have pews in them. Indeed, at St Thomas, there is a second story of gallery pew space. For a congregation of SVAC’s size, the additional pew space is probably unnecessary, but what is needed is classroom space; and that is what might similarly be furnished by space outside the side aisle. These classrooms could be separated from the worship space by a solid wall, much like the solid wall on the north side of St Thomas.

Even with the solid walls next to the side aisles, there would still be window space in the open triforium and clerestory to fill the place with light, eliminating the need in the daytime to use a full set of electric lights. Instead, the light created by God himself and set in the sky would light up the worshippers as they prayed and sang praises toward heaven.

The reason St Thomas has an asymmetrical façade, with a heavy tower on the left and none on the right, is that the left side is next to 53rd Street, whereas the right side is nestled close to another building. The tower, then, is right at the street corner, calling the city to prayer. For SVAC, the nearby building would be the strip mall to the west – that is, to the left of the entrance on Dempsey Street – and so a redesigned building whose practical solutions were inspired by those of St Thomas, Fifth Street, would instead have a tower on the right, on the far side away from the strip mall. This would also allow the side classrooms potentially to have doors open to the outside, toward the parking lot, if anyone needed to be picked up or dropped off. This, I think, would be well-informed adaptation rather than slavish imitation.

Obviously, a Gothic building is only one way to do things. In Milpitas, the kind of Gothic used for St Thomas might even be rather out of place. I note, however, that First Presbyterian Church of San Leandro, built in an English Gothic style, has no difficulty fitting into its surroundings. Any design would have to be sensitive to its surroundings and strive to make the building an integral part of its neighbourhood; but, with some imaginative skill, a competent architect could do the necessary.

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