On designing a religious arena

Designing a church as religion arena
By David Dillon
Architecture Critic of the Dallas Morning News
Sunday, June 27, 1999

PLANO — “Prestonwood Baptist [is] on the cutting edge of how church is done in the 20th century and early 21st centuries.”

That breezy description from the architects catches the spirit of North Texas’ newest megachurch. Phrases such as “doing church” and “cutting edge” come from entertainment and marketing rather than Scripture. They emphasize performance and staying ahead of the competition, which, with 16,000 members, Prestonwood Baptist has done extremely well.

On its planning team are a theatrical art director, audio and lighting consultants and a traffic specialist, along with the usual complement of architects and engineers. Prestonwood features an atrium lobby, food court, broadcast studio, and “electrical service equal to any large shopping center.” Its monumental scale — 7,200 seats, 400,000 square feet — prompts members to compare it to the cathedrals of Europe, even though Prestonwood’s architectural roots are strictly New World and secular — the mall, the convention center and the sports arena. It represents entrepreneurial religion raised to the power of 10.

“Baby boomers and Generation X’ers grew up with rock concerts and sports spectaculars,” says David Shanks, design director for HH Architects of Dallas. “They’re comfortable in those kinds of settings, so churches are going in that direction, too.”

Much has been written about megachurches, with their five-figure congregations and eight-figure budgets that support everything from Bible camps to aerobic classes, prison ministries and job training for seniors. Yet Prestonwood is to other megachurches what Walmart is to a conventional supermarket.

The first phase costs $47 million, a corporate headquarters sum; the completed project will cover 138 acres of former prairie with a school, fitness center, 1,000 seat dining hall, amphitheater, prayer garden, retirement village and parking for 5,000 cars. The site is organized like a shopping center, complete with loop drive and convenient exits to the tollway. Estimated total cost: $150 million.

Prestonwood dominates its surroundings not with a cross or spire but with a curving metal roof that recalls nearby EDS headquarters with which the church is sometimes confused. Except for a row of stained-glass windows in the atrium and a single window behind the choir loft, it contains little religious iconography. Instead of a a narthex, it offers a monumental porte-cochere leading to an arc of metal doors reminiscent of Reunion Arena. Immediately inside is a two-story “fellowship atrium” with a box office for special events and a religious bookstore the size of a small Borders.

The contractor who built the Ballpark in Arlington also built Prestonwood, using a similar combination of red brick and Austin stone for the exterior. Inside, he added terrace and balcony seating — with excellent sight lines — but no luxury boxes.

“It’s not nearly as nice over there as it is here, in God’s stadium,” senior pastor Dr. Jack Graham reassured the congregation on opening day.

The heart of Prestonwood is the worship center, an immense, fan-shaped room containing 7,200 seats — more than three times the number in the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center or Bass Performance Hall. With its rear view projection screens and computerized light and sound system, it is more like a Broadway theater than a traditional sanctuary. During services, these screens beam close-ups of the ministers, the choir and the various soloists, along with the texts of hymns and inspirational messages, which appear like supratitles at an opera. At one point, the church considered installing theater seating (no cupholders) instead of pews, but discovered they would have reduced the seating capacity substantially.

All of this high-tech wizardry represents a dramatic change for a church that started in 1977 with 28 members meeting at Fretz Park. By the late 1980s, Prestonwood had expanded to 10,000 members and a new home at Hillcrest and Arapaho roads. But nonstop growth coupled with chronic battles with neighbors over parking eventually forced Dr. Graham to cast his eye even farther north, to the fertile and largely unplowed ground of Plano, where three-quarters of the residents are reportedly “unchurched.”

As he told the congregation before the move, “We are planning to take the territory and blaze new trails as we conquer the land and this community for the glory of God.”

Not leaving anything to chance, he also advertised the move on billboards and television spots.

It is hard not to be impressed by the range of programs at Prestonwood Baptist or by the enthusiasm of the congregation, who, despite referring to their church as “Fort God,” insist that it is intimate and inviting.

Yet even for true believers, this is a stretch. Prestonwood’s architecture provides an anonymous background for the music, altar calls and religious pageantry. The interiors are mostly gray, beige and white; the spaces coolly efficient rather than uplifting. The church defends this neutrality as allowing “the audience to become the show,” which it does. But when the crowd is gone, the building dies, like an arena on an off-day.

As farfetched as the cathedral analogy may be architecturally, it illuminates the dramatic convergence of religious and secular power found in the megachurches.

Chartres, St. Peter’s and Westminster Abbey are representations of both the glories of the heavenly city and the secular ambitions of their makers, who understood market share. A great cathedral could be an economic and political boon to its community, attracting pilgrims, merchants and artisans, and enhancing its image before the world. Bishops competed with one another to build larger and larger cathedrals, with the victor sometimes vaulting all the way to the papacy. On the other hand, an ill-conceived and poorly constructed cathedral could sap the resources of its community for generations. Overbuilding was a problem then as now.

But the great cathedrals are neither neutral or acrimonious. Their heroic scale and richness of detail remind us that God is great and that man needs help. They are as powerful empty as full, and when we enter them, we always know where we are — which is not “God’s stadium.”

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