Monday, March 23, 2009

Ceiling Height - feeling the relative intimacy of different spaces

CCUCC-FloorPlanIs taller always better? No, and it's even more complicated than that.
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein.

"A building in which the ceiling heights are all the same is virtually incapable of making people comfortable.


"Vary the ceiling heights continuously throughout the building, especially between rooms which open into each other, so that the relative intimacy of different spaces can be felt."
The Central Congregational United Church of Christ on Clairmont Road in Atlanta is a modern building, invisible from the street. Few have ever seen it, even fewer have seen the inside.

This is a special place. For stubborn traditionalists: When architecture is done this well - in any style - it can change your mind.

It's uncanny. There are places in this church that go straight to my brain chemistry, my hormones, my DNA!
I know it's good. Why? Ceiling height is one reason. (Material, light, texture, finish, flow, proportion, siting, landscaping, and unity are as well but more on those another time.)

Here's the sanctuary as you drive up a winding, hilly road.

This is the entrance to the offices, the main activity room, and the lobby. 8 foot ceilings, huge windows, interior and exterior - this place feels good. The volumes make this space feel wide open, the offices to the left are cozy without losing the light or view.

The lobby / reception room really got me thinking. It connects every part of the church - the crossroads. It's a large room, fit for a small to medium wedding reception. It feels perfect, comfortable and human. It has an 8 foot ceiling! Impossible. Aren't big public rooms supposed to have high ceilings?

2250 Square Feet with an 8' ceiling.

Wallflowers might find the courage to talk to strangers in this room.

The 8 foot ceiling continues from the lobby into the sanctuary. A sanctuary with a fireplace lounge? The lounge is a cozy, antechamber. It is a convex space that looks out to the sanctuary, to the garden, and to the lobby.
Thanks to Pam Kersting at GardenDesigns+more for explaining "convex" spaces to me.

The low ceilinged lounge is like a safe observation deck. You are in the sanctuary but protected.

Here is the view from the lounge. What a feeling. The low ceilinged lounge, is a very comfortable place to gather the confidence to go further.

The ceiling rises higher, the floor falls away.

Let me repeat Mr. Alexander:
"Vary the ceiling heights continuously throughout the building, especially between rooms which open into each other, so that the relative intimacy of different spaces can be felt."

"...then the mere fact that the ceiling heights vary, allows people to move from high rooms to low rooms, and vice versa, according to the degree of intimacy they seek - because they know that everyone correlates intimacy with ceiling height..."
I don't think it's very cozy down here if you are the preacher or the choir.

The idea of a lower ceiling within a breathtaking sanctuary is hardly modern. Chatres Cathedral's aisles, are separated from the nave by a rows of columns and are made more intimate with a lower ceiling. You can feel cozy alongside the nave. Our modern church gets the very same effect using a different method.

Central Congregational United Church of Christ
is a must see for Architecture Tourists.


First Congregational Church of Atlanta has a shared heritage with Central. It's a quite different but wonderful place. It is undergoing renovation right now. I've had the great pleasure of attending a jazz performance there presented by senior minister and musician, Dwight Andrews. It was a great night in a wonderful, historic building.

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