November 17, 2011 by Steven Worden
By Steven Worden
Striking reversals play a major role in Christianity: the First Cause of all Existence takes the form of a helpless baby in a stinking stable. The Lord of the Universe suffers a humiliating death. The poor and the meek shall be rewarded while the rich will struggle to squeeze into the kingdom of heaven. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Blessed are the meek.
In keeping with this deep theme of sacred irony, imagine a plain metal shop building with three tall garage doors located on a freeway access road. It stares out on a wetland pond and a parking lot pavilion and butts up closely to an unremarkable suburban house. This ordinary three-bay garage on the edge of a small town in the Northwest Arkansas Ozarks became the raw material for the making of a holy space.
Today, gone are the garage doors. Now, you see dark bronze metal sides with a stark white front, two offset windows cut in around the building’s front corners, an unsupported slab juts out as a porch, and a tall white rectangular box with a cross incised on it serves as a steeple. Although the fussy might quibble at the idea of a Latin cross, the shop has truly been reborn as an Orthodox church. The old has passed away, the new has come.
And is the case with every effort that involves more than a couple of people, this building has a collective story. The small congregation came from ten different countries and had little money. So, according to the firm of Marlon Blackwood Architect, when a deceased congregant willed the church some money, they bought some land which had a garage on it. Although they considered tearing down the garage to build a church, someone suggested that they make the garage into a church. They even hit upon to an interesting solution to the problem of how to build the traditional dome characteristic of Orthodox churches. The project contractor traded two cases of beer for a used satellite dish.
What adds even more human interest to this story is that this former three-bay shop building in its new incarnation has been featured on the cover of Architecture Record, won a 2011 American Architecture Award and recently, has been named the World’s Best Civic and Community Building by the World Architecture Festival held in Barcelona, Spain just this month. Please allow me to repeat that: the World’s Best Civic and Community Building. Not just in Northwest Arkansas, or Arkansas, or even the United States. The Best Civic and Community Building in the World.
Of course, architects, builders, and contractors deserve their due credit for this achievement, but the more transcendentally oriented among us might entertain a small nagging question: if the force driving our desire for beauty can transform a homely sheet metal three-bay garage into the World’s Best Civic and Community Building, might there not be hope for us, too? But for now, we can admire the little church out by the stock pond off 540 and consider that in its meekness and humility it serves as a quiet metaphor for our own hope and trust.