Location Springdale, AR
Size 3,600 ft²
Completed 2010
Cost $405,000
Program Orthodox Christian sanctuary
Awards 2012 AIA National Small Projects Award, 2011 World Architecture Festival Winner in Civic and Community Buildings, 2011 American Architecture Award, 2011 Chicago Athenaeum American Architecture Award, 2011 Gulf States Regional AIA Design Merit Award, 2010 Arkansas State AIA Honor Award

This article is part of gb&d‘s Green Typologies series, Places of Worship: Contemporary Religious Design in America

Perhaps more than any other Christian denomination, Eastern Orthodox Christianity is distinct for its repentant sensuousness and angelic iconography. For this reason, the St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church in Springdale, Arkansas, is in high contrast to the religion’s historically Byzantine aesthetic, using light, orientation, and modernist pragmatism to complement the experience of the Orthodox liturgy.

Although it seems minimalistic, the aesthetic language for the church was determined as much by artistic conjecture as it was budgetary constraint. And according to Marlon Blackwell, though limiting, these controls lent themselves to a truly unique sacral experience. “This project is interesting because it gave me an opportunity to create a type of sacred space in a unique form,” says Blackwell, principal of Marlon Blackwell Architect in nearby Fayetteville, Arkansas. “But the parishioners could only afford around $100 per square foot of the 3,600-square-foot building, and they wanted to keep the metal shed that was on the site.”

When the church acquired the site, it likewise acquired the extant prefab shop building that, for budgetary reasons, the church was committed to preserving. Sustainably speaking, this was an incidentally intuitive control and limited the number of breaks and changes Blackwell would make to the structure. “They wanted various elements you normally see in Orthodox churches,” Blackwell says, “but because they also wanted to keep the prefab building, we used it as an invitation to take a different strategy.”

In Orthodox churches, the sanctuary forms the conceptual center of the structure, as the representation of the liturgical experience. Traditionally, Orthodox churches are oriented eastward, citing the light of the rising sun and its dissolution of darkness as an icon for Christ. The extant prefab structure on the Springdale site was situated opposite the eastern axis, which Blackwell corrected by adding a narrow addition to the western side of the structure. This enfolds the narthex—the vestibule that leads to the main worship space—and allows for a skylit red tower, designed to mimic the experience of stained glass, to flood the end of the narthex as worshippers pause and transition into the sanctuary.

existing building from northwest

The existing structure of the St. Nicholas church was nothing more than a utility shed.


Blackwell put box-rib metal panelling on the building’s exterior and used lighting to toy with shadows and animate the otherwise unornamented façade. Photo: Tim Hursley


The dome you see in the ceiling is an important part of Orthodox churches, but this isn’t your typical dome. The project team secured an old, discarded satellite dish and embedded it in the ceiling as a way to stay within budget. Photo: Tim Hursley


Architect Marlon Blackwell Architect
Client St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church
General Contractor Lourie Construction
Civil Engineering Bates & Associates
Structural Engineering Myres Beatty Engineering

“All of the iconography, the iconostasis, and all of the familiar Orthodox elements are present in this project, but the difference is that we had to include all of these things within the DNA of a metal building,” Blackwell says. “Rather than being external, all of these elements are internal.” This notion of internality is subtly reflected in the building exterior with three windows and a double-high skylight tower acting as the only interruptions in the box-ribbed metal shell. Interior natural flourishes such as the suspended white-oak millwork in the narthex, gentle skylighting, and natural white-oak floors in the sacred spaces promote a sense of peace and intimacy.

In addition to the material elements, Blackwell says he also wanted to restrict the amount of light coming into the building. “We wanted to create a space that had more shadow than light,” he says, “so when light comes into the space, it makes it very atmospheric.”


Certification Not applicable
Structure Aggressive adaptive reuse of prefab shop building
Exterior Doubled exterior cladding limiting thermal gain
Mechanical Heat recovery system reducing energy usage
Site Minimized parking area

The clear glass skylight at the top of the tower features a red laminated, cross-shaped window on the east side, which introduces a red light to the space and signifies the blood of Christ. A blue laminated window is placed in the corner over what will be a baptistery, and a yellow window allows light into a short staircase that leads to classrooms on the second floor. “We really focused on how light was introduced and mixed in the building, and how it would be useful during the services,” Blackwell says.

Because of the limited project budget, the building relies strongly on reuse and repurposing of extant materials. The dome in the sanctuary, for example, is a downturned satellite dish that the contractor acquired for two cases of beer. Coated in a plaster skin and finished with an icon decal, the dish is at once practical, unique, and functional.

“This project really underscores the continuation of our focus on architecture anywhere, on any scale, for any budget,” Blackwell says. “We have a lot of projects focused on being as reductive as possible through form, thus allowing the box to become expressive through profile.” Complementary to the Orthodox tradition, the church is itself an icon, architectural and spiritual.

This article is part of gb&d‘s Green Typologies series, which in each issue explores a single type of building. For more of our most recent collection, Places of Worship: Contemporary Religious Design in America, choose from the list below. 

• Prayer Pavilion of Light, DeBartolo Architects

• Cathedral of Christ the Light, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

• Green Mosque Proposal, Faith in Place

• Westchester Reform Temple, Rogers Marvel Architects