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On Religion: Building the kingdom in timber, iron, brick, stucco

Terry Mattingly
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Terry Mattingly

Holy Ascension
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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

When Andrew Gould began designing a sanctuary for Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he started by creating an imaginary backstory for the parish.

Instead of beginning with a circle of Orthodox families and converts in 1996, the art historian and architect imagined that a community of Russian immigrants had moved to Charleston in the mid-19th century. They looked at the city's famous mix of Southern warmth, Colonial style and coastal, Mediterranean influences and then built a church that was thoroughly Orthodox — but still fit into Charleston.

Working with local materials as much as possible, Gould designed a Byzantine church, but with a copper roof, plenty of exposed heart pine wood and stucco masonry painted in a gold-yellow tint common in historic Charleston. Then he included a unique saw-tooth cornice design, using local brownish-red brick, a pattern that had the added advantage of resembling traditions in Russia.

"I kept asking myself, 'What parts of Charleston's architecture could be baptized into Orthodoxy? What if this church had been built by Russians long ago and it's been here ever since and it looks totally at home in Charleston?" he said, describing the 2004 project that opened a new stage of his career.

"I have a kind of romanticized fantasy about the history of these churches, and I have used this technique in other places. Keeping this kind of story in mind keeps me focused on what I'm trying to accomplish."

This goal shapes the work that Gould and other artisans do with his New World Byzantine Studios in Charleston, whether it's designing an entire church; one of his massive, circular ironwork chandeliers; or other forms of liturgical art and church supplies. The goal is to maintain ancient forms and traditions while blending in cultural, historical influences seen in life in a specific region.

For example, what would a Pueblo-style monastery in New Mexico look like if it were Orthodox instead of Catholic and featured altar cloths, carvings and icon-stand decorations influenced by Native American culture?

Other Gould projects include:

■ An Orthodox monastery in the heart of Pennsylvania Amish Country.

■ A medieval Byzantine Catholic Church in the South Carolina foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

■ An Orthodox church, in Spanish Mission style, with influences from the San Diego Arts-and-Crafts culture.

■ A Byzantine chapel in the farmhouse style found across the rural Midwest.

Gould spoke recently in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as he began designing a sanctuary for St. Anne Orthodox Church (my home parish). Once again, he faced the challenge of discerning what parts of the surrounding culture to incorporate. The local architecture reflects the ultra-modern, even Brutalist style of the mid-20th century. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is nearby — built during the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb.

"If there was any place in America to build a stainless steel flying saucer spaceship (church), it would be Oak Ridge," he said. "I don't think we want that."

Looking at the surrounding Cumberland Mountains, forests and Appalachian folk art, Gould was reminded — not of Greece or Russia — but of churches in Serbia and Romania. Those sanctuaries, of course, feature domes, rounded arches, hanging lamps, candle stands and high windows that create shafts of light through the incense used in Orthodox worship, offering a zone of light in front of the main icons and altar.

Lighting is crucial. Instead of large windows that bring the outside world in, Orthodox architecture "turns the church inside out" so that "it's glowing from within," he said. This "represents the Kingdom of Heaven ... that shines out into the world."

It's important to maintain a "sacred ethos" when building this kind of church. This is hard to do today, he explained, since modern American construction standards assume that buildings should last for 40 or 50 years — not for centuries.

"If you build something that looks like a Byzantine church, but it isn't really built like a Byzantine church, then it isn't going to look and sound and function like a Byzantine church — generation after generation," said Gould.

"The goal in most architecture today is to create the appearance of something, not the reality. ... When you build one of these churches, you want the real thing. You want reality. You want a church that's going to last."

Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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