SYNDAL BAPTIST LIFE CENTRE
I write in response to the review by Graham Crist on the Syndal Baptist Life Centre in the March/April issue of Architecture Australia on community works. I was disappointed that the article did not, on the one hand, engage with the spaces, form and design qualities inherent in the building. Nor, on the other, did it consider or comment on the local community, who possessed the vision and strength to plan, resource, construct and fit out a remarkable community building without government or corporate assistance. Crist’s article read as a platform to express a personal view of church and ecclesiastical architecture, without exploring the subject project.
My interest in the project should be disclosed. I am an architect who worked for a number of practices, including Denton Corker Marshall (involved with public building works), before establishing my own practice ten years ago. As a member of the church, I offered my expertise by serving on the building committee.
The process started in 2000 with the convening of a committee of interested members to formulate a brief that would form the basis for a design competition to select an architectural firm. While there were programmatic objectives such as a larger worship space, more meeting spaces and environmental responsibility, the overriding sentiment of the brief was to create a place that served the wider local community or, as it was described at the time, to create spaces “not for us”.
The whole church community was involved in the architect selection, gathering to hear design presentations made by a short list of three practices and responding through a preference ballot. Atelier Wagner was the clear choice and I found working with them, through the lengthy design development and consultation process with voluntary organizations and social networks that use the facilities of the church, professional and inspiring.
A church project is almost unique in its funding. It is most like a “home owner” client, in that the financing is with discretionary spending, rather than budgeted within a public spending budget, or a business venture where the bottom line can make or break a project.
Once the architect was engaged, the “client” became a building committee of ten, representing an extended community of 1,000-odd, all prepared to donate funds. Interested individuals and a variety of groups hoping to expand their work to meet increasing community demand contributed briefing preferences. These included youth groups, seniors groups, community playgroups (not a childcare centre), a counselling centre, a food bank, Chinese and Vietnamese community groups and so on.
The challenge for the architect in working with all these groups was significant, and they undertook the project with extreme patience, diplomacy, passion and professionalism.
I see this building as a rich and interesting project to critique within the context of community building and also to explore on a spatial, formal and textural level. Crist chose to use this project as an opportunity to promote his negative opinion of the “hard-edged and dark-curtain-walled” corporate buildings of the eastern suburbs, likening the life centre to this archetype. I disagree with his comparison and therefore found the article disconnected from the project under discussion.
In regard to Crist’s commentary on archetype, Baptist churches have traditionally rejected the formal symbolism of the Catholic, or Anglican high church. This church is rich, however, in subtle symbolism, in the “honesty” of natural materials, the large windows and skylights connecting with the natural environment (as opposed to context) and the subtle cross, whose proportions indicate a continuation through and interconnectedness with the different levels of the church. There is no font, being a Baptist church, with adult baptism taking the form of full immersion in a mobile tank brought in for the occasion.
Thank you for taking the time to consider this alternate view, that there is considerably more to Syndal Baptist Church’s Life Centre than was covered in the published article.