Scaling the Height


 

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We turn our architectural attention to a design principle manifested at Shadyside Presbyterian Church.  The congregation, in the 1880’s, clearly wanted a structure that reflected God’s majestic transcendence and yet welcomed people.  In choosing the then-popular Romanesque Revival style, they gave the designers a stiff challenge to achieve dignity and hospitality.

We see the difficulty of the challenge in Craig Barnes’ impression of husky Romanesque churches before he saw Shadyside.  “They reminded me of a squat wrestler with huge biceps, waiting to pin me to the ground.”  Why doesn’t our church confront us (or him) this way?  To avoid intimidation, the skilled architect will give human scale to even a large structure.

You can experience this at the southwest corner of the church, along Westminster Place .  The massive, square, stone tower and looming pyramid roof could easily overwhelm.  But, look at the windows of the south porch.  The vertical dimension of the window opening is just about person-height.  Glance up and notice that the same windows in the same human scale are repeated at the top of the tower.  The ability to relate ourselves to the “lantern” mass prevents us from being repelled by its power.

Are we pushing the metaphor too far to see Jesus as revealed in Philippians 2?  The lower window represents the Incarnate Christ “being found in appearance as a man.”  This same window, raised to clerestory level, depicts the Ascendant Christ.  “God exalted him to the highest place.”  God maintains his transcendence while taking on human scale to welcome us into his communion.

The lantern windows also confirm to us visually what we know intellectually.  We are not looking at a monolithic mass, but a sheltering enclosure.  There is a place within where our knees can bow and our tongues can confess “that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  When we go out from this shelter, our human-scale lives can confess the same glorious Lord and offer the same welcome.

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