Presbyterian Church of Shinkwang Iksan Korea

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Q&A: Growing Korean congregation redefines contemporary church design, say two of its planners

A congregation’s leaders’ fact-finding mission to the U.S. has resulted in the design and construction of South Korea’s first church facility modeled after contemporary American church ministry ideas.

The Presbyterian Church of Shinkwang in Iksan, south of Seoul, opened its new doors in 2008. The 500,000-squre-foot facility serves the church’s 8,000 attendees (which has doubled in size in a few years) and their community. The church’s determination to incorporate effective church facility standards that cut across global boundaries offers other church leaders insights about ministry, regardless of their churches’ addresses.

In this article, two people who guided the architecture and technology considerations for the new Korean church answer questions about the process, the result and the points of learning that other churches might find interesting. Tom Greenwood, AIA, is director of church services for The Beck Group, the design architect for the project. Brian Elwell is senior consultant with Acoustic Dimensions. Both firms are based in Dallas, Texas.

Churches make up a good percentage of work for each of your firms. Why is this one significant?

Tom Greenwood (TG): I’d say the Shinkwang church is a new kind of Christian church because it’s similar to some of the more progressive church facility installations in the world today – specifically mega churches in the U.S. — but is distinctively Korean, which brings in a global perspective. A second thought is that we in the U.S. can learn from this Korean church just like they learned from us. American churches and church designers can learn how to maximize space, how other congregations are being culturally relevant and even how to take a risk to improve missional capabilities.

Brian Elwell (BE): I’d also mention that this project involved the installation of cutting-edge technology that would certainly enhance and update the worship experience and that was going into a church that didn’t know how to use it all. It was remarkable to see them conquer this. We installed this great technology, but they originally didn’t have the talent to operate it.

How did the journey lead to you, Tom?

TG: Well, the pastor and others visiting U.S. churches came to Dallas, where Beck is based. They toured large churches we’ve designed there including Prestonwood Baptist Church and Fellowship Church, and felt those were examples of the type of church ideas they wanted to bring to Korea.

Describe the finished product.

TG: This was an entirely new campus for the church which includes a 2,500-seat sanctuary, a 300-seat chapel, a children and youth educational center, a multi-purpose double gymnasium, a bookstore, a cafeteria, three indoor playgrounds, administrative offices, and 20 prayer rooms. This is contained in a 90-foot tall four-story structure that includes an underground parking garage for 500 cars, and the garage is topped by an international-sized soccer field. The building structure and exterior is cast-in-place concrete, accented with composite metal panels.

What was your initial reaction to designing a contemporary Korean church from an American template?

BE: This was certainly no template, but the leaders were confident in what they wanted and they were very much in sync with today’s effective technology for churches.

TG: While we did introduce some new things to the church in terms of technology use, they easily adopted the changes, in part because Korea is just as up-to-date technologically as the U.S. is. At least society at large is. Churches there have not brought much technology in. This church, however, made significant investment in technology because of their desire to be a cutting-edge facility.

BE: The fact is that Seoul is very westernized and Korean culture is adopting technology as fast as America — or faster. Samsung and LG’s headquarters are located there. It is a tech-driven country. Kids are used to it. They see American culture around them six days a week and yet houses of worship do not have the same level of technology. Besides, I look at technology as a tool that helps achieve a greater vision.

What goals did the church have?

TG: This new building project was inspired by innovative American church ministry concepts, so the church leaders were very intentional in asking us as architects to lead them to understand American church design ideas, especially mega churches in America that are utilizing technology and other creative ways to reach the younger culture. The design that emerged then was very unique for Christianity in Korea. In fact, we have heard that many church leaders from the area have commented that the project is opening a new chapter in Korean church facilities which is exciting and humbling to us.

BE: I found it interesting, too, that the concept design I had originally drafted was significantly more advanced than what they had in their existing facility, but they wanted to take it even further. They had a clear direction. They want to bring the talent into the church to run the equipment in order to reach younger generations, families and singles in a way that had not been done previously in Korea.

TG: A contemporary building can be shaped around different ideas of ministry. Most church buildings in South Korea are not as community-minded, but designed more to serve the congregation only.

One church leader commented that the new church can now serve an “underprivileged cultural area.” What did he mean?

TG: I believe the pastor said it and he was speaking of the fact that this city, Iksan, does not have any significant civic or cultural facilities such as performing arts centers or museums. One of this congregation’s desires was that it be a positive influence on the culture and community, so the entire facility is designed to provide a welcome and to encourage interaction with the community. For example the soccer field, designed over its parking garage, is to host community recreation and it’s the only church in South Korea with a soccer field. There’s also a wellness center, a cafeteria, a chapel and a main sanctuary that can all be used for community events. Just recently the church hosted a national conference for CEOs.

Describe the technology you installed, Brian.

BE: The control booth at the front of room – for lights and sound – features a 72-channel digital audio and controls for lighting. The main speaker system consists of three-line array clusters suspended over the 80-foot platform. The sanctuary has two projectors and two large 16:9 high definition screens on each side of the podium for image magnification and song lyrics. The video production studio is in the back of the sanctuary for audio and video recording and video production. They have six high definition cameras for capturing various aspects of the worship services.

TG: We also installed fluorescent lighting in the worship space to provide much greater energy efficiency, but not what you’d expect in an American church. Key areas of the sanctuary have programmable lighting that can add color or slow movement to energize the more contemporary worship services.

BE: In total, the tech for this church came to an estimated (U.S.$) $2.5 million.

Were there any acoustical challenges?

BE: Yes, the back wall and the extended, curved balcony front that slopes down towards the front of the room. The back wall needed a 20-degree downward slant to improve acoustics so people seated mid-way back into the sanctuary didn’t get an echo. The back walls also have a slotted wood system with acoustic panels behind that helps absorb the sound. The under balcony of any church often creates a separate acoustical space. We only put six or seven rows under the balcony so the reverberance of the main room was able to fill the space. We angled the balcony face upwards to direct the acoustic bounce up rather than towards the audience or platform. The result was the ability to present a full and clear music dynamic range which can be scaled from bold music to quiet subtleties easily.

What “green” aspects did you introduce?

TG: As a country, South Korea is much more sensitive to energy use than the U.S. because of extremely high energy costs. Among the things we did to reduce energy costs was orientation of the building to work with seasonal climate changes, wind direction and sunlight patterns; design of sun-shading devices on building exterior; and extensive use of fluorescent lighting, even in the sanctuary. We also installed a radiant heating and cooling system in the floor.

Would you say the facilities were American in style and Korean in substance?

TG: Yes, for example in the use of materials like wood in the building. Wood is more or less sacred in that culture. Wooden floors are common and many of the children’s rooms and prayer rooms have no seating but on the floor. The wooden slat walls in the sanctuary are for both acoustic and cultural elements.

What challenges did you face in the overall design?

TG: Well, first there was the issue of creating desired spaces within a compact and yet vertical structure. All development in Korea is vertical since land is at a premium. Our design had to squeeze nearly 500,000 square feet of building on just 7 acres. This type of facility development approach is roughly 10 times more compact than the typical church in the U.S.
What were the “take-aways” for you for this project that will be with you as you work on future church projects?

BE: The greatest thing to me is to watch this introduce a new worship style in Korea. It was energizing to see how this building ushered in a new level of passion and excitement.

TG: For me, it was to think in completely new ways about how church buildings can be organized and function to support unique cultural and urban needs. Plus, I was truly impressed with how this church did something risky, exhibiting a willingness to look at where the church was going and how the church could change to meet the culture.