New Church Project
The new church of our Lady of Lebanon in Washington has to bear the identity of Maronite tradition, and be at the same time integrated in the physical, aesthetical and social environment of contemporary Washington. Despite its relatively small scale, it has to have a strong impact of sculptural but non decorative volume (according to traditional approach) and be a landmark, focusing point for the Maronite community.

Thus the basic components of the church's concept are the following:
  • A plain rectangle carved on the two ends for the entrance and for the apse.
  • A protruding eggshell form as a baptistery bearing a lot of symbolism.
  • A discrete, yet present bell tower ending a processional gallery which links the narthex main entrance to a side entrance in the apse, and to the lower level which will be partitioned to house a main lounge and dependencies upon request. The gallery is a basic functional space that allows processions that are characteristic of Maronite liturgy. It also links the backyard (where parking lots are) to the entrance and to the underground lounge.

The entrance narthex is a strong focalizing sculptural space that induces tension, appealing to move to the inside. The multi faceted envelope of the entrance expresses a new pioneering trend in design recently called “new edge design”. This is an original architectural attempt to materialize it. In such an “avant-garde” approach, we define church architecture as leading in the architectural design field. This will be also an esthetical way of dating the building. This “avant-garde” narthex recalls however the old medieval narthex in Maronite tradition.

The built-in bell tower is not like a western soaring up main feature of the elevation. It protrudes enough to be a signal, just like the ones of most Maronite traditional churches. The upper part of the bell tower is a half dome bearing the old Syriac Maronite cross. Here we recall the oldest glorifying symbol of the cross going back to Constantine’s time, in the Holy sepulchre structure, that remained present in the ciborium iconography in the sixth century churches in Syria and in old Syriac miniature paintings. Below it is the bell with a concrete inclined reflector to send the bell sound far enough. The lower part of the tower opens out to the gallery. The gallery has an inclined ceiling that has its lower part at the back, from the parking access side and from the lounge stairs. Then it goes up in a crescendo manner to reach the narthex entrance, amplifying the procession movement, which is rythmized by the columns, up to the main entrance of the church. Once inside, we are already grasped by the powerful perspective of the nave, focusing on the apse, which is flooded by light. From the relatively dark entrance, the procession continues in a crescendo of light towards the altar. The crescendo effect is also enhanced by the still rising up band in the flat roof of the nave to conclude the movement in a climax at the altar level. The walls of the nave are of flat curved surfaces of brick that give an enveloping feeling, the shroud of the protective church, or the veil of our Lady.

Just still on the entrance of the nave; at the left is the baptistery, an eggshell protruding out. Symbolically this is the first obliged step to be part of the church where the beginning is purification, then sanctification. The eggshell is also a symbol, among the oldest in the history of the Near East, going back to the Phoenicians, then through Eastern Christian tradition. The egg is the symbol of rebirth, a rebirth in Christ. The top of the shell is lit by an inclined circle covered by a stained glass representing the dove of the Holy Spirit projecting rays of light. Still at the beginning of the nave, but to the right is the confessional in the void between two walls, it’s also a step of purification before entering to holiness of the sacralized space. The curved walls of the nave amplify the slow evolving motion towards the altar, by reclining gradually in two arches to meet the half-transverse vault of the apse. The transverse brick vault of the apse is carved up by the dome, which is the symbol of heaven, flooding the altar with the heavenly light, which is the vehicle of grace (according to the pseudo-Denis). The dome is a high-tech steel and glass structure that gives the impression of floating above the space. The dome existed in the most elaborate Maronite church, the cathedral of Aleppo.

At the farthest edge of the dome, the vault of the nave is carved by a vertical cylinder, the intersection of which gives the abstract shape of the cross. The cross being the ultimate focus and becomes the link between the dome and the altar, between heaven and earth, thus sacralizing the altar. Behind the apse are the prothesis and diaconicon. The space of the nave and apse is basically a rectangle, carved in a manner to give a widening impression, before and around the altar. This enhances the participation of the congregation in the service according to the wishes of Vatican II. The overall expression of the space is massive and suggestive; favoring piety like in an old Maronite vaulted church, yet being interpreted in a totally new abstract geometry. From the outside, the apse is carved on the rear to embrace the dome, like a jewel mounted on a polygonal frame.

~ Alexis Moukarzel (Architect)

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