Practice as Ministry: The Inclusive, Religious Architecture of Stanley, Love-Stanley

Volume 48, Issue 1 :: Michael J. Crosbie

New Horizon Sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta

The exterior form of New Horizon Sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was inspired by African sculpted mounds.

Ivenue and William Stanley

Ivenue Love-Stanley and William J. Stanley outside their Atlanta office.

The practice of William J. Stanley, FAIA, and Ivenue Love-Stanley, FAIA, has been one of inclusiveness, hospitality, and connection to the community. This is especially true of their work with faith communities, which is how their practice started more than 35 years ago in Atlanta. Both have been recognized for their leadership in the profession; among their many honors they are both winners of the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award from the American Institute of Architects for the social import of their work. This April, they will receive the Distinguished Leadership Award from the Connecticut Architecture Foundation, and deliver a lecture at the University of Hartford. In this interview, they talk about their architectural practice as a form of ministry.

Michael J. Crosbie: To start off, how do you collaborate as a practicing couple?

Ivenue Love-Stanley: Bill is the designer, and I am the nuts-and-bolts person. I do the research, the code review, community meetings. I can smooth feathers that he might ruffle. When the office comes up with schemes, we vet them—what is good, what works and what doesn’t. We do pin-ups in the office for reviews.

MJC: How did you gravitate in your practice toward the design of religious architecture?

William J. Stanley: A little bit on our background: Ivenue’s family were committed members of the church, very highly regarded at church. They spent a lot of time at church (they lived right around the corner). Ivenue’s two older sisters married pastors. My family is fifth generation African Methodist Episcopal. My aunt was president of the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention.. Ivenue and I had the same backgrounds: church, Sunday school, mandatory choir memberships. As I got older I drifted away for a while, studied Islam as part of my exploration as a young man. I came back to my church after meeting Ivenue. My cousin, Nelson Harris, was a church architect and one of the founders of the National Organization of Minority of Architects, so he was influential and a role model for me. His daughter Gail Harris was the second female to become a bishop in the Episcopal Church.

IL-S: A lot of what we do today has to do with our backgrounds and the influence of the church. One of the first projects that Bill and I worked on together was St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Gainesville, Georgia, by Welton Becket. I was still in architecture school and Bill was an intern architect. One of the principals at Becket gave us the schematics and asked us to finish it.

MJC: How is the background/history of the congregation expressed in your designs?

WJS: Some churches have a real sense of history, a sense of purpose, and they want to expand where they are, and that flows and drives the conversation. Others are aspirational churches. They have moved from somewhere else, and they need to respond to the new opportunities that they have. They may not have anchor churches around them. We really try to dig down and listen, sketching as we work with them. Once we understand their history and background, it helps form the design. For example, we were called upon to create the Lyke House Catholic Student Center on the Atlanta University Center campus; and the priest and committee we worked with incorporated a lot of Coptic art and images as part of their tradition. So we looked to the monolithic rock-carved churches at Lalibela in Ethiopia for inspiration. That connection resulted in a poured-concrete building, rusticated with bush hammering, with the windows formed like those on the Church of Saint George. We designed all the furniture as well, coordinated with the architecture. Nearby we designed the Absalom Jones Canterbury Center, where they do jazz vespers, but the space was also used for Islamic services. So it’s flexible enough to be inclusive.

IL-S: What has been successful for us is to go in and try to understand the particular culture of every church we work with. We worship with them, we do the background research, understand their history, how they came about, and what is important to them. And for every house of worship we have done, we could go back to that congregation and join as full members, feel at home, and be welcome.

WJS: We also talk to the man on the street—not just the building committee members, but the people in the background: the ladies working in the kitchen, the guy parking the cars. We try to understand the congregation in its entirety.

IL-S: We really live with them. I think we come across as being not just an architectural firm, but part of their inner circle. I don’t think we would have been as successful with this approach if we had not been active in church ourselves.

WJS: It helps that we know the hymns, the liturgy. We have done independent bible study and have taught Sunday school. We don’t approach this as an academic exercise. You need to look at how they use their space, the importance of meeting and fellowship before and after the service, what they do outside of worship. They might have day-long events, like my aunt’s church, where the night communion services are important because many people worked as domestics attended only after dinner had been prepared and served. We realize that things like incantation dance, education, foodservice, and childcare are bedrock to the success of the church. The places where you have a lot of activities, such as a gym or where the elderly hang out, is part of that success. Churches can really be enclaves that have linkages to other resources in the community—the library, or senior housing, or a school. That’s a key part of their success. Through those, welcome is communicated in many different ways.

IL-S: How you define a house of worship is not just coming in on a Sunday for communion and prayer and hearing the word, and then you’re gone. It has to do with inclusiveness. There is something for everyone.

MJC: What is it about working on church projects that is most fulfilling, and frustrating, for you?

WJS: The pastors we have worked for who have needed to move their churches from one place to another, to be transformative (the Nehemiahs of the world), that has been key. You have to gain their trust and assure them you have the best interests of the church at heart.

IL-S: The clergy and lay leadership have been the link. They have the vision. But it’s not about them but what they are going to leave behind; it’s about the future of the church and the congregation and the community. The frustration is when a church comes to you wanting everything. There is the point where they find that they can’t have it all. Then you have to go back and do a reality check and boil it down to needs versus wants. You need to revisit the choices and see how the project can perhaps be phased so that the core requirements are completed first.

WJS: It’s important to connect the church back with the community. We have never done a “black box” church, where there are screens and no connection to the outside. We design with nature, preferring to see the trees’ seasonal changes, the occasional flash of lightning. The New Horizon Sanctuary at Ebenezer Baptist Church is a very Afrocentric building. They wanted stained glass windows, which would tell the history of the diaspora from Africa, the slave trade, through to the civil rights movement; they even conducted a competition for the designs. We designed the window openings to receive those stained glass windows. In the end, they just couldn’t afford them for the first phase. But what the congregation sees now is the city, the skyline, the community beyond the church. And people can see in. The church is connected to the community, and the community is connected back. They are inclusive in every way.

MJC: What is it about designing religious buildings that has been most rewarding for you?

WJS: For just about any project an architect designs and builds, two things will very likely happen: the building will be transformed (find a second or third use) and eventually it will be torn down. With religious buildings, this is rarely the case. Most of our religious work has been done with African-American communities. They will build a school and a church, which they will always point to as symbols of their community. That is a huge joy for us as architects. It is such a great feeling— to design places that have been successful, where the church buildings are working well, all while they are aging gracefully. That’s why for most of our churches we choose materials—stone, brick—that have a great sense of permanence.

IL-S: In terms of masonry or concrete construction, from a perception standpoint it’s important for a congregation to feel that this is a one-time investment. It has to do with what will be lasting and work best for the church.

MJC: I don’t think many architects think about their practice in this way, but your work with churches sounds very much like a ministry for you both.

WJS: It is. Do I pray about projects? Yes. Do I pray especially hard about our church projects? Absolutely. You pray that you don’t miss your calling with them. You can become so involved with your ego, and be so stiff and ornery about driving home a point, that you miss the blessing and meaning of approaching the problem another way. You can miss what God might be trying to tell you. Sometimes you have to wait for an answer to come, in its appointed time.

Our religious architecture is very much about who we are and what we do. I think we were meant to do it, in terms of the ways we work with the congregations. It boils down to the trust level. Ministries happen in different ways. For us, it has a lot to do with the faith that we have. Maybe this work is ordained. We may have been predestined to bring life to the community of faith.