August 31, 2020

by Adrian Wong – Architect AIBC


Some of the most generous moments are giving when we have little. With a tight budget, the St. Nicholas Church by Marlon Blackwell Architects pushed every resource further to give as much as possible. Located in Springdale, Arkansas across a three acre site, the project’s team decided to use an existing steel-framed shop building as its literal framework.


The simple rectangular plan manages to delineate space efficiently yet thoughtfully. As with many churches of our time, the size of the congregation inflates hugely only a few times a year. The primary worship space is well proportioned for a weekly audience, but has the ability to open up and effectively double capacity when needed. For the remainder of the year, this flexible space offers a welcoming threshold between the main hall and secondary service spaces. I’m inspired by the building’s ability to adapt, to be truly intended for the long-term. The function of the space can continue to contribute to the community as it evolves, which I believe is the most sustainable design we can achieve.


More intimate prayer spaces are accommodated considerately and modestly. The shallow narthex is compressed with a sloping roof, before passing under the project’s double high ‘bell tower’ on entering the main hall. Coloured glass and primary colour painted walls suggest stained windows while keeping consistently modern. Ancillary spaces are muted to direct attention where things matter most.


The centerpiece of the building is the altar, which is quietly highlighted by clear-storey light. A focal point of the ceiling is a dome that was a repurposed satellite dish from the site. Blackwell anecdotally mentioned that the dish was refurbished and repainted by members of the community, outside on a summer’s day in exchange for a few cans of beer. These design features do not shout out for recognition nor require great resources but are just as impactful.


Marlon Blackwell Architects advocate that ‘architecture can happen anywhere, at any scale, at any budget, for anyone’. When speaking of his projects, Blackwell clearly looked beyond the problems to solve, to how he could offer the most for the least. There is a kindness to the spaces created and an optimism to the power of a building. As difficult as the result is to achieve, it is an aspiration to even believe it.

There are a lot of ways to be generous. The St. Nicholas Church is great inspiration for giving when it doesn’t seem there is more to give, and looking for nothing in return.