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Auerbach Pollock Friedlander leant SOM its performing-arts expertise in designing the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California.
Cesar Rubio Photography

Auerbach Pollock Friedlander (APF) does not bill itself as a worship-space specialist, though the firm boasts an extensive list of churches and synagogues in its portfolio. In fact, the bulk of APF’s work centers around project types that at first glance seem far outside the realm of the holy. Founded in 1972 as a theater consultancy, the firm has applied its skills to opera houses, professional repertory theaters, concert halls, museums, planetariums, and entertainment venues in casinos, cruise ships, and nightclubs. But the principles that guide design of those spaces—lighting, sound, and audience/performer relationship—are also integral to the function of a house of worship.

“The approach to designing and planning worship spaces is no different than for other varieties of performance spaces,” said firm president and founder Len Auerbach. “The key elements are audience communication, sight lines, focus, and creating the appropriate environment.”

SOM's church has become one of the most recognizable buildings in recent years.
Cesar Rubio Photography
Less Well Known is the interior, where Auerbach Pollock Friedlander developed a seating arrangement that focused all the attention on the altar.
Timothy Hursley

The connection between religious architecture and the performing arts is plain in this era of mega churches, where the faithful gather by the thousands to be dazzled by musical performances and sermons from preachers blown up larger than life on huge LED video screens. But contemporary theater technology has also become a constitutive part of more old-world forms of religious congregation. Be it the restoration of a 19th-century synagogue or the construction of an airplane-hangar-sized Pentecostal church, architects are now facing the technical challenge of integrating systems such as lighting, sound, and video into their designs.

In spite of the similarities between theater and worship settings, there are important technological differences that must be considered when fitting one to the other. “In worship spaces, the entire room is a theatrical experience,” said Auerbach, “with special attention given to specific ritual and ceremonial criteria as in weddings, Mass, clergy, and direct contact with the congregation, all different from the focus of a theater.” These criteria, of course, vary from religion to religion, which make an understanding of denomination APF’s first step.

Two projects in the firm’s portfolio illustrate the fluctuating degrees to which aspects of theater or performing arts design can become part of worship spaces. APF’s latest finished religious work is the SOM–designed Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California. For this building of architectural purity, APF worked with SOM to make the theatrical systems like lighting and rigging of auxiliary flown elements integral with the interior screen wall, and thus totally concealed. The firm also helped the architects develop the seating plan, giving special attention to seat count, sight lines, and custom design of pews.

While that project reflects the minimal side of “performing worship” space, APF’s contribution to Zimer Gunsul Frasca’s massive Conference Center for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City represents the maximal. The 1.5-million-square-foot center, completed in 2000 and comprising a 21,000-seat auditorium and a 911-seat proscenium theater, is one of the world’s largest indoor worship spaces.


In addition to designing the theatrical lighting, overhead rigging, and flexible rostrum and staging systems for the project, APF worked with the architects to create a sense of intimacy in the auditorium, a tall order given that the distance from the pulpit to the last row of the third tier is the length of a football field. The firm also created an infrastructure of data distribution, power, structural support, and a tunnel system for accessible service to keep its technology up-to-date throughout the structure’s expcted 150-year lifetime.

Aaron Seward

Aaron Seward is an associate editor at The Architect’s Newspaper.