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Research by Lyndon W. Ernst for submittal to the Honors Society of Andrews University, Berrien Springs Michigan.  Presented and accepted in 1987 as part of the Honors degree program.  Used as the basis for a Bachelor of Architecture thesis project.

Towards an Adventist Architecture:

Studies in Ellen White





Ellen White was involved in the building of the Seventh-day Adventist church, not only as a spiritual leader, but also as a leader in the tangible aspects of church growth. This study is to illustrate that she was involved in the field of architecture within the denominational setting, that her writings espouse design principles that are applicable today, and that these principles are being supported by theoreticians and practitioners in current architectural thought




I. Introduction

II. Ellen White (Web Site)

A. Credentials

B. Research analysis

1. Methodology

2. Conclusions

III. Christopher Alexander (Web Site)

A. Pattern language

B. Principles

IV. Illustrations

A. Springerville church, Arizona

B. St. Matthews church, California

V. Conclusion


Lyndon W. Ernst


May 12, 1987



The purpose of this dissertation is to examine the potential and possibility of Ellen White as a source of architectural design philosophy, to compare her principles to those of a current architectural theory, and to illustrate those principles with actual buildings. The reasons for this research are twofold: 1. to aid in the creation of a design philosophy in my Bachelor of Architecture thesis, which is the relocation of Thunderbird Adventist Academy (this boarding academy serves a student body of 300 and all of the facilities for an Adventist educational program must be provided), 2. to develop a collection of Ellen White's writings on architectural subjects, because there was no available sources.

The research methodology involved a key word search using the Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White and the manuscript files of the Ellen White Research Center at Andrews University. Words that specifically discussed architecture were almost non-existent, so words that described aspects of architecture were used, such as: buildings, college, education, church building, construction, sunshine, ventilation, air, sleep, and other related terms. From this key word search approximately 50 pages of quotations from the published works were found, and a limited archival search was conducted. After this search, selected current architectural thought was studied to establish if there was any similarity.

This research in Ellen White's writings has found: 1. that she accumulated a large amount of practical and advisory experience in the field of architecture, and 2. that in her written advise on building design there can be found some basic principles that may be abstracted and compared to current architectural theory.

Ellen White was involved with the construction and direction of many buildings in her life time, both as a church leader and as the church's spiritual advisor. Her experience ranged from the large complex architectural problems of Avondale and Battle Creek, to the construction and design of her own personal houses in Battle Creek and Sunnyside in Australia. Beside this actual (hands on type) of experience she was consulted by church leaders as they planned new buildings for the expanding church.

In her role as church leader and spiritual advisor Ellen White had a large influence on the design of church related buildings. In Australia she guided and assisted the church leaders in the acquisition of the Avondale property and then moved to a location near the property and built a house to demonstrate proper building design, (as well as encourage the faith of the workers at the new school). She also assisted in the design of the campus and its buildings, and guided the appropriate placement and construction of the buildings. In telling of these building experiences, she often refers to the guidance she received through dreams and from the scriptures. For instance in 1896 she writes that a decision to build the church at Avondale was being delayed and she was shown in a dream the urgency for beginning to build. She was also shown the appropriate placement, and the appropriate design approach for that church. The extent of her practical experience and the spiritual focus of her building philosophy serve to illustrate her unique credentials on the subject of architectural theory and design.

The principles espoused by Ellen White were taken from the quotations found in the key word search. To do this it was necessary to first compile the quotations that were found and then to do a comparative study of the compiled material. At this point a distinction was not made in the source, (whether the book was original material or a compilation).

The intention of the study was to find any over-all architectural design theories that might be relevant, regardless of specific architectural form and then to test these concepts by cross referencing them in the compiled quotations and returning to their initial source, if necessary, to confirm the context of the statement.

Thus, when Ellen White's writings were examined for theoretical principles of design, 3 basic principles became apparent: 1. that buildings should be economical, i.e. she espoused an economical architecture; 2. that buildings should be built by a community of hands and minds, i.e. a participatory architecture; and 3. that buildings should enhance and accommodate human enjoyment of life, i.e. a humane architecture.

Ellen White writes of the first principle, an economical architecture, in Manuscript 127, 1901. She was apparently writing a letter to someone who is not identified in the manuscript. She begins by saying that she has a severe cold because of the meetinghouse in Trenton where she had a speaking engagement. The building was so draughty that she wrote, Trenton needs a "plain, neat, and substantial meetinghouse". She then notes that some ask her why she is always using the phrase "plain, neat, and substantial" when talking about buildings. Her answer is that she wishes Adventist buildings to represent the "perfection God requires from His people". From the text it would appear that people were saying that Christ is soon to return and because of this buildings should be built as cheaply as possible. Her response to this theory was that the materials used in a building should be the materials that will do the best for that situation. Her reasoning was that when Christ was on this earth everything he built was well made, with every part built to handle what it was designed to do. By comparing this manuscript with other statements on the same subject, such as Testimonies vol.7,p.83 where she writes (after a discussion on the relative merits of brick or wood) that "Economy must be our study", it can be seen that the question of an economical form of architecture must be addressed.

Of her second principle, a participatory architecture she writes, speaking of Avondale, that the students should be taught how to maintain the school grounds and buildings, and how to design and build the necessary buildings for the school. Comparing this with her statements from several different sources that church members are to build their own churches with the aid of the pastor and his advisors, (i.e. architects and builders) it would also appear that the participation of the user is an important part of architecture.

Finally, the idea of a human architecture is easily seen when one considers the health message that Ellen White spent so much of her life presenting and the many cases where she calls for comfortable and convenient buildings, such as her comments in Testimonies vol.6, p.208 where she writes about the erection of school buildings. She says "they should be as homelike as possible". On the subject houses she writes in Fundamentals of Education p.155 that rooms for human use should be as cheerful as possible, and when writing about church architecture she says that buildings that are set aside for God to meet with His people must be "comfortable, neat, and convenient", or in architectural terminology humane. The question may now be raised, these principles seem apparent, but do they really work in today's high-tech, highly specialized world?

In answer to this question Christopher Alexander, a highly acclaimed theoretician in the world of architecture. Who is also a professor of architecture at UC, Berkley and a practicing architect, has observed that most of the places in the world that people go to see were not designed by architects but by the people. He then proposes the architectural world that the thing that makes a place "alive", a place that people enjoy and are comfortable in, is deeply rooted within the human experience as a set of patterns. These patterns have been easily followed in the past because the culture has maintained what he calls a pattern language, a set of cultural rules of thumb that describe what is necessary to create a building form that answer the needs of the people and the forces of nature in that area. He then writes that the industrialized world has lost this pattern language because of increased technological specialization and loss of cultural identity.

Alexander proposes that these patterns must be rediscovered and reapplied if we are to create a world where humans can again enjoy life and create truly humane spaces. He proposes that a common language of architectural design and construction be initiated so that everyone can understand how it is that buildings are built.

This language is similar to Ellen Whites principles in that it: 1. promotes the participation of community members in the construction of buildings because they understand the language of construction, 2. creates an architectural form that is humane as historical architecture tends to be, and 3. develops a sense of economy because people will use locally available materials and will be more in tune with the local environment. The patterns in his book A Pattern Language are designed to inform the non-professional as well as the professional about the process of building in this manner. His reason for writing this book was to develop a pattern language that everyone could use and understand. By allowing everyone to understand a common building sequence, or language, he is promoting a system of architecture that can be easily controlled and built by the building users and their professional consultants. This form of architecture will necessarily lead to a participatory, humane, and economical architecture, because the potential building user is involved and can mold building design and construction phases to meet his needs and desires.

It may seem that if Alexander's' ideas were accepted architecture would soon return to the buildings of our fore-fathers because of the loss of specialization that is necessary to construct a highly technological building, and it is true we might. But as Christopher Alexander has pointed out in his book The Timeless Way, the great cathedrals of Chartes and Notre Dame were created with a pattern language. Guided by the Master builder (the medieval architect) the people of that time used a common set of rules or patterns that allowed them to produce buildings that are to this day wonders of architecture.

The ideas of a participatory, humane, and economic form of architecture can also be seen today. Many buildings have been built using these concepts within the last century. Many of these were designed and built by the people, and some of the most exciting buildings designed by architects, have also used these principles.

To demonstrate the use of these principle a small church in Arizona, and a award winning church have been selected.

The small church in Springerville, Arizona is a good example of these principles. Although not designed by an architect it is still a building that speaks of the values of the community it serves.

The church serves a small community that is supported by the ranching and forestry industries. This leads to a situation where there is not necessarily a lot of money, but there is always a large amount of practical knowledge in the building area. The church building was first designed by the pastor and a local elder and then built by the congregation with local materials, to fit that small groups needs. The congregation grew and the next pastor initiated another building program to add on a school/sabbath school classroom, some of the people then saw a need for an appropriate entrance and a steeple, so that was added and at present a rather large community service, school addition is being added, with an architect designed new sanctuary being discussed as the next project. The economy of this community has demanded a large involvement by the congregation and they have built a church structure that represents their beliefs and would do justice to the church at large.

Although they probably never thought of making the building a humane building, they were concerned with comfort, convenience, neatness, and other terms in common use that make up a humane architecture. They probably did not think about a true economy either, but with the use of the terms: maintenance free, durable, and the most for the money, and the local pattern language for materials, the building shows a knowledge of materials usages that would tend to create a true sense of economy. While this church building is representative of the principles/patterns Ellen White and Christopher Alexander espouse it also provides examples of human limitations, that while not destroying the integrity of the building do detract from the overall picture, such as having to walk the side of the podium to get to the restrooms in the back classroom.

Examples of architect designed buildings that follow the principles of participatory, humane, and economic architecture are also available. The St. Matthew's church in Pacific Palisades, California is an excellent example of participatory, and humane architecture, the economy of the building cannot be established because of a lack of resource material.

Charles W. Moore, FAIA says of this church "We didn't design the church, the congregation did,". The original church had been burnt in a forest fire. The congregation wanted to participate in the design of the new church and made that participation a requirement for the acceptance of an architectural firm. The firm Moore Ruble Yudell was hired to design the church. They accepted the participation requirement because they had built that way before and had enjoyed the process. Four workshops were scheduled to facilitate this participation, at each of these workshops more than 200 parishioners were involved. The architects job was to facilitate the design expression of the parishioners and to synthesize the apposing view points that existed. These four workshops established the schematic design and a 13-member building committee was appointed to work with the firm to complete the design. The results are a building that is contemporary and yet maintains the past, straight forward and yet filled with surprises. The spatial sequencing, the texture of the materials, and the acceptance of the site all combine to create a building that is at once contemporary and humane.

In conclusion a review of the findings would be appropriate. All architecture and especially religious architecture is indicative of the value people place on its functions. To attain a correct interpretation of the value placed on it by a community, architecture must be participatory, humane, and economical. In other words the building must involve the users in its creation, life, and death, the building must facilitate a human enjoyment of life, and the building must be truly economical in its use of resources.


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