Can architects construct sacred space?
“The Church isn’t a building, it’s people”, say the evangelical congregations. Buildings are de-emphasized; there is no more “sacred space”, special places set apart and built by people to be literally inhabited by God, because we understand God to be omnipresent. He doesn’t need a human place in order to reveal Himself to us. I agree with Diana Eck: “Architects don’t construct the sacred – how could they?” What an impossible task that would be. Miroslav Volf says that the sacred is essentially non-producible by human effort, and non-REproducible as well. In the history of the world people have constructed many beautiful spaces (not necessarily churches) where we somehow feel closer to God. The world needs places like that, no question; as we’ve been taught, however, connecting with God can occur in your living room, in your car, or anywhere in between. You don’t have to go to a building to do it.
Church or mall?
If you’re going to construct “sacred” space, you better be prepared to spend some money. A place where the God of the Universe lives can’t simply use common materials; it’s a special place, set apart. It has to be well constructed in every way. Therefore, since God doesn’t need a home, rather than spend money on exquisite buildings we spend it ministering to people in our community and around the world. No doubt that’s a major part of what we’re called to do in life. Perhaps it’s no surprise that, as Edwin Heathcote says, “The out-of-town megachurch has to contend with the mega-mart, the big shed retailers for the Sunday audience… and [they] remain profoundly cynical about the importance of space… quick to erect and cheap to run”. Our buildings for worship and ministry (I’m hesitant to even call them “churches”, because the church is people) become bland and indistinguishable from the local mall, office building or movie theatre. And the church seems to be okay with that.
Buildings shape us
But as an architect I’m continually thinking about the nature of built space all around me and the profound way, even on a sub-conscious level, it affects my life. And then I imagine how it could be better. Consider Winston Churchill’s words: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Look around and you can probably guess which people live, work and shop in poorly designed buildings, just from the expression on their faces! The average person spends 90% of their lives in buildings, so you know from personal experience what I’m talking about. Conversely, when you walk into a well designed, carefully considered and skillfully executed building you know it right away. It’s uplifting, you feel somehow more alive.
Dwelling in the House of the Lord
In the Psalms, David talks about “dwelling in the house of the Lord” (Ps 23:6, 27:4) which, by most accounts, refers to a spiritual dwelling or the afterlife. Until Christians get to heaven, however, they have to dwell on this earth. What does that really mean though, to dwell here on earth? Martin Heidegger defines it as “the way in which humans fulfill their wandering from birth to death on earth under the sky.” And we are wanderers; God’s curse in Genesis 4:12 makes it very clear, “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” As we wander the earth in our lostness, we long for everything to be made right again, to regain our lost place in the world. Reconciliation. You’ve probably felt it too. Christian Norberg-Schulz talks about dwelling as not just a roof and a number of square feet, but in the qualitative sense, to belong to a place, to find meaningfulness. “When we identify with a place, we dedicate ourselves to a way of being in the world” he says. And again “Human identity presupposes the identity of place.” The post-modern sense of alienation and arbitrariness we see all around us (even within the church community) I think is at least partially caused by a lack of identity with place, that is, a loss of meaningful places in our cities, public institutions and yes, even (perhaps especially) our homes.
Qualities of Space
There is a direct connection between the quality of the spaces I inhabit and my underlying satisfaction with life. Please note I’m not demanding luxury or opulence at every turn, or expensive materials on every surface, as in a place you might define as “sacred”. It’s not about that. It’s about carefully considering (i.e. “designing”) our fundamental relationship to our surroundings. Heidegger calls these basic elements of existence the four-fold: earth and sky, people and divinity. Well designed architecture will consider our relationship with the ground, how the building is situated on it or in it (“of it” as Frank Lloyd Wright said about a house on a hill). It will pay attention to the quality of light at various times of day, made evident by the sun’s shifting position in the sky and the quality of the atmosphere. Architect Steven Holl, for instance, conceptualized the Chapel of St. Ignatius with no less than seven different types of light in various parts of the building. Much of this was accomplished with careful spatial organization, placement of windows, paint and drywall, but what an amazing result! Meaningful space will also address in some way the relationship between humans and the divine, obviously especially important in buildings for worship. In other words, “design” matters.
When our places for worship become indistinguishable from the other types of buildings around us, when their quality of space is more or less homogenous with the rest of the world, how will it affect the Christian community? My daughter’s friend, when visiting our church for the first time, said that it looks like a mall! What does one do in a mall if not consume stuff, either physically or visually. Should we be surprised that Christian values are slowly being eroded, replaced by marketplace values? If our places of worship do not properly allow us to identify with Christianity, with what will we then identify?
More meaningful spaces
What we desperately need is more “intelligent design” in our cities, public institutions and homes. We need more spaces that enable dwelling, in the true sense of the word, allowing people to identify with place as a means of being in the world. In other words, to help bring about true meaningfulness to our short time here on earth.
Let me know what you think in the comments below. Are there particular meaningful places in your life? What places do you identify with?
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