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From a Symposium on Architecture for Worship in the 21st Century

Institute for Sacred Music, Yale University, New Haven, CT
October 25th, 2007

It is not easy to summarize, and to respond to, as rich and complex a series of presentations as we have seen over the last couple of days. I am not sure that it is even possible, and a few minutes cannot do justice to everything that has been said here. So let me begin by saying that these remarks will be more along the line of reflections than specific response to every portion of this remarkable and diverse event.

It is hard not to be struck by the fact that at the collateral event that preceded this symposium, at the Institute of Sacred Music, the titles and session topics were fairly straightforward – “Rediscovering Sacred Space,” for example, or the overall title, “Architecture for Worship in the 21st Century.” The starting point at the Divinity School was the fact of sacred space; there is no question that the sacred exists, that it can be expressed somehow in architectural form, and, indeed, that it must be if the business of the Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music is to go on. At the architecture school, we are less certain, and we have built two days of presentation and discussion around that wonderful world that Le Corbusier famously used in describing Ronchamp – “ineffable,” the un-understandable.

This is no mere semantic point. I think it brings to the fore a paradox that has been hanging over much if not all of these proceedings, which is the fact that in the realm of the sacred, architecture, the discipline most dependent on materiality, indeed the ultimate expression of materiality, must try to express what is not material, what cannot ever be material. In the quest to create sacred space, architecture is in a way working against itself, struggling to use the material to express what transcends the material, using the physical to express the transcendent.

It should be no surprise, then, that we inevitably start, as the title of this conference does, with the idea of space, not structure. Space is intuitively less rational, and it is obviously less material. *No one ever talks of sacred structure.* We may study Gothic cathedrals as works of structure, but when we talk of them in sacred terms, we talk about things far less tangible – we talk of space, and light. Even though, as Kurt Forster reminded us at a symposium on writing on architecture in this very room earlier this month, the word “space” was not part of the standard architectural parlance until the 19th century, what we now use that term to connote, of course, has been there throughout the history of architecture. The creation of sacred architecture was very much the creation of sacred space. But the fact that the term was not in common use until relatively recent times is of more than passing significance, I think, because it reminds us that the creators of much of the space we hold most sacred were not thinking of themselves as makers of space, at least not primarily. For much of history, that concept was too abstract. As Vincent Scully has shown us in looking at sacred space made by the Native Americans and the ancient Greeks, space was the product of a design process that had its basis in ritual and metaphor – a point that is consistent, I think, with the building of Christian cathedrals and churches, as Tom Beeby reminded us today in his remarkable presentation on the connection between Rudolf Schwartz’s treatise on sacred architecture and the work of Mies at I.I.T.

The second part of the paradox is that architecture, as well as being material, is also by nature and expectation rational – structure must have logic or it cannot stand. But the sacred is otherwise. It not only does not demand logic, it defies it. Logic, the thing that is utterly essential in the creation of structure, is quite beside the point when it comes to the sacred. But we need it to get there. If the goal is to make sacred architecture, there is a contradiction between the means and the end: the means must be rational, even as the end cannot be.

Another way to get at this might be to say that you can contemplate the idea of God, but you cannot engineer the physical reality of God. Or can you? When Richard Meier told us about the machine that was invented to create the shell-like vaults of his church in Rome, I began to think otherwise. The architects of the Gothic cathedrals, of course, were engineers who used structural systems to create otherworldly, far-from-rational effects. The physical structure of any Gothic cathedral is measurable, describable, capable of being analyzed down to the last stone. Yet as every one of us knows, it evokes feelings beyond the measurable, beyond the rational. The structure exists to bring us to a place that, for all intents and purposes, defies the very essence of structure.

I would be tempted to say that this is in fact a good definition of sacred space – the use of material forms to evoke feelings that go beyond the material, and which cannot be measured. I think that’s basically right, and it surely describes the spaces we have been looking at over the last couple of days, whether it is the Greek temples Vincent Scully has once again spoken so movingly of or the buildings of Ando or Holl or Moneo or Meier. I think it may also describe a kind of space we haven’t talked much about – sacred spaces like simple Quaker meeting houses, which are not complex and that seem, at least superficially, not at all “ineffable” – they are often symmetrical and relatively unadorned, and seem very easy to understand. Yet somehow they evoke profound thought and transcendent feeling, as too, does a Japanese temple or a Zen garden, outwardly simple and by all appearances rational in a way that, say, Ronchamp is not. Yet they are capable of evoking feelings of equivalent mystery. In a way the Quaker meetinghouse is the most amazing of all, because we cannot even see that something startling and otherworldly is going on. It is like the magician who doesn’t use smoke and mirrors or flashy costumes, who just stands there and makes you think nothing is happening and then suddenly you notice that your watch has disappeared. Scully suggested that the power of such spaces – and he included Wright’s Unity Temple among them – comes from the centrality of the preacher, upon whom all focuses, since there is no elaborate altar or stained glass or decorative detail to distract. While it is true that a centrifugal space has a wholeness and completeness to it that is different from an axial one, since you always feel that the axis could keep extending itself, as if the façade and front door were just arbitrary, I think the intensity of the meetinghouse, like that of Shaker objects, comes also from its purity, from a sense that this is not plainness, but simplicity pared down to its powerful essence.

Yesterday, early in this symposium, Karsten Harries raised the possibility that architecture itself does not create the sacred, that the users of a building and their activities do. In other words, do we confer the quality of sanctity upon spaces, or do certain spaces confer sanctity upon us? That is not precisely what Professor Harries asked, but his words stimulated that question in my mind, and it is also implicit in what Peter Eisenman, Mark Taylor and Stanley Tigerman have said. Perhaps what is sacred is simply what we choose to sanctify. I think of small Protestant and Jewish congregations in many cities whose synagogues are essentially storefronts or leftover urban spaces, or of similarly improvised Islamic places of worship in Western cities, or of rural churches like the ones Emily Townes described so compellingly that are roadside boxes, or even of those new mega-churches that plenty of people, myself included, have derided as looking like shopping centers, but that obviously perform a sacred function for many people, and inspire in them feelings of transcendence even while looking more like big box warehouses, as Vincent Scully noted in what must be the only essay in the English language to mention Jerry Falwell and Louis Kahn within a paragraph of each other. In the Ethical Culture Society in New York, the words “The Place Where People Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground” are inscribed over the proscenium arch, and that, for many people, is so. It may be no accident that Ethical Culture emerged in large part out of Judaism’s reform movement, since the Jewish tradition has never been particularly architecturally centered (although compared to the mega-churches of the Christian evangelist movement, it would seem deeply committed to architecture). There have been many elaborate and beautiful synagogues built over time, but they have almost always tended to follow the local vernacular, and however elaborate they may be, they share the desire to express the idea of the book, in the form of the Torah scrolls, as the primary sacred element. Whatever form space takes in a synagogue, it is never supposed to overshadow the sanctity of the word. I think this notion – that however elaborate the building, it do nothing to suggest that physical structure takes precedence over the importance of the written word – would even have been true in what may be the greatest unbuilt synagogue of modern times, Kahn’s Hurva synagogue, intended for Jerusalem, to which Professor Scully referred.

Recently I was in Prague, where I visited Josef Plecnik’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, which I must say is one of the most amazing buildings I have ever seen in my life – but whose sanctuary could not be described as ineffable space. The interior of this church, though hardly simple, has little mystery about it. It was intended by Plecnik to be flexible; it is based on a grid, and his concept was to have multiple altars and not have the space be exclusively frontal in its orientation and use. In this sense it is not entirely dissimilar to the “way form” space described by Rudolf Schwartz that, as Tom Beeby showed us, provided a spiritual basis for Mies at I.I.T., though given the fact that this church is Catholic and not Protestant, and that Plecnik ornamented his building richly, I would be wary of carrying that analogy to a deeper level.

I mention this church, however, to make another point, which is that I felt a certain disconnect there between those who worshiped in it – and by chance, I visited during Mass – and those who came to see its architecture. I sensed that these two groups of people experienced the building in quite different ways, and were moved by different things. I would almost be tempted to say that the worshipers were moved in spite of the architecture, and the architectural pilgrims because of it. To the former group, this staggering and stunning work was largely a container, made potent not by its form so much as by the rituals that go on within it as well as by certain iconic objects contained inside it, statues and paintings that were not designed by the architect and in some cases were even put there over his objection, rather like the traditional cross that was installed in Richard Meier’s building. The point is that unlike the exterior of this building, much of the interior was not finished as the architect specified. Now to the other group, not the worshipers but the seekers of architectural experience, the rituals mattered even less, probably, than the architecture mattered to the worshipers. It is Plecnik’s astonishing form, his slab of a bell tower, his merger of classicism and modernism into something at once rich and bombastic, that give this church its aura, its magnetic allure. So what makes a space sacred can differ hugely depending on who is doing the experiencing.

This is true in plenty of cases – who has not felt in Sant’Ivo or San Carlino a similar disconnect between those who come to worship Borromini and those who come to worship God, even though most of the time the former group seems clearly to outnumber the latter. At Ronchamp or Unity Temple or Kahn’s Unitarian Church it is even more the case – architectural pilgrims seem to dominate. There is nothing wrong with this, and obviously there are plenty of people who belong to both groups and have both deep architectural and deep religious experiences when they visit great sacred space. Not all who are attracted by architecture do so solely because they – or the architect – have substituted aesthetic appeal for the aura of the sacred, to quote Karsten Harries yet again. It is not wholly a zero-sum game.

My point, though, is only to note that even when these experiences, the aesthetic and the sacred, co-exist, we as architects tend to assume that the power of the experience come wholly or largely from the architecture. I think this is architectural hubris. While great architecture surely can and often does enhance religious experience, it is not particularly likely to create it. The qualities that most of us in this room respond to, the qualities that we might feel confer sanctity, are not always the ones that make space sacred for the people for whom it was, at least ostensibly, created. It is transcendent for them at least as much because of what they bring to it, not because of what the architect has done with it.

This is not to minimize the potential of architecture, even in our time, to create a sense of awe, and the aura of the sacred. And that we continue to aspire to the sacred is itself significant – since, as Rudolf Schwartz would remind us, the quest for the sacred is itself sacred. And often, the quest is successful. Ando’s work surely achieves a level of the sublime, its qualities emerging, as Kenneth Frampton explained earlier, in part from his view that nature is not static but active, that we can often come closest to nature by being the most man-made, not by deferring to nature but by actively re-interpreting and almost controlling it – by abstracting it. One might contrast Ando’s Church of the Light with, say, Fay Jones’s Thorncrown Chapel to underscore the point. In Ando, nature is almost hidden, mysterious, and awesomely powerful. The concrete structure seems, when you first see it, to suggest no sympathy with nature at all, and no mystery, yet it brings forth the most profound connection to nature, and the greatest mystery, as daylight glows through the cross cut into the concrete wall, and between the two concrete planes of the entry wall. The Fay Jones chapel is superficially far more spectacular as a structure, and seems, with all that glass and all those ribs and vaults, to be celebrating nature and revealing it, showing us both the glories of nature and the bedazzling abilities of man to a far greater extent than Ando’s closed concrete structure. Yet what Ando reveals, of course, is vastly subtler, and infinitely more powerful.

The ability of architecture to create the sacred, and not merely to enclose it, so to speak – that is to say, the ability of architecture to create a sense of awe, regardless of whether one comes to it with the rituals of religious practice in mind, is borne out, paradoxically, by non-religious buildings, since they are places to whom no one brings an expectation of ritual or a predisposition to religious experience. Where in the realm of sacred space are we to place, say, Jefferson’s Lawn at the University of Virginia, or Sir John Soane’s breakfast room, or the Farnsworth House? There, architecture is transcendent, as surely as in the chapels of Tadao Ando. And what are we to make of the fact that while Unity Temple’s extraordinary space surely possesses a sacred aura, so, too, does Fallingwater, perhaps just as much of it. We might say the same of Kahn’s Unitarian Church and his Kimbell Art Museum, or his British Art Center here in New Haven. In these cases, and they stand for many others, is it merely that the aesthetic has reached such intensity and risen to such heights that it becomes indistinguishable from the sacred?

It is easy to think so, particularly when one considers the common observation that the art museum seems to have replaced the cathedral in our culture, a point re-iterated by Kenneth Frampton. We have no sense of commonality of faith as motivated the cultures that built the great sacred space of earlier eras, and it is no accident that we have made the art museum the most intense arena of architectural expression today. For all that commercial skyscrapers have come to represent cultural symbols in one sense, we now use art museums as emblems of our aspirations with far more conviction, I think. Steven Holl perhaps intentionally underscored this point when he chose to present his remarkable Nelson-Atkins Museum as a kind of coda to his presentation of his St. Ignatius Chapel, with the clear implication that if we observed certain similarities between the chapel and the museum, the architect would not object.

Still, I’m not entirely sure that Karsten Harries’s fear has been borne out, that we have simply substituted the aesthetic for the sacred – or, to use Faribaz Sahba’s formulation, that we have chosen to be attracted to the beautiful rather than to the divine, and therefore to have our hearts – or our eyes – satisfied instead of our souls. I am not sure it is so simple, in part because the connections between art and religion, between art and the soul, are far deeper and more interdependent, not to say ambiguous, than these formulations would suggest. I would hope that our failings are not quite so clear-cut as merely the elevation of the aesthetic over the sacred.

We also need to keep in mind that our time is altogether different from any other in terms of what architecture can do to create the aura of the sacred. Ronchamp was a radical building, an extraordinary work of sculpted space and directed light. The very strangeness of its shape seemed appropriate as a way to pull away from the rational and to suggest an unseen, spiritual power. Though the space within Ronchamp is as beautiful and as moving as ever, to the visitor today it is surely no longer as strange. Technology has now brings within the reach of every architect shapes and forms that could barely be imagined before. If you have a computer, you can be Frederick Keisler now, a creator of endless space that can turn in on itself. Technology has made the ineffable migrate from the spiritual to the secular sphere. Fifty years ago, when Ronchamp was new, unusual space, complex space – mysterious space – was in and of itself a signifier of the sacred. Today, that is much less so, and not only because of our culture’s secular and aesthetic leanings. It is also because technology has debased the currency of ineffable space.

This has been happening gradually for a while – some time after Kiesler did his most interesting work there was Saarinen, who was a shaper of space that had many of the qualities we associate with the ineffable, even though his most potent spaces were not his religious ones but places like the TWA Terminal, striking in its time and now looking rather tame. But today, thanks to technology, we can and often do make spaces like TWA and many of them are far richer and more complex. It would seem inevitable, given the technology that is available to us, that what constitutes our sense of truly ineffable space would have to change in an age in which every airport aspires to being Ronchamp.

The challenge, surely, is to maintain a sense of mystery, which in an age of technology enabling all, or seeming to enable all, is not easy. It is mystery, after all, that distinguishes, say, Hawksmoor from Wren, the irrational from the rational. Brilliant and magnificent as Wren is, we can analyze and understand it – St. Stephen Walbrook is logic raised to its highest, most glorious potential. Go next door to Hawksmoor’s St. Mary Woolnoth, or a short distance away to Christ Church Spitalfields, and you experience something else, something startling, perhaps a bit terrifying, and compelling in a whole different way. One is the earth, perfected, and it holds forth the promise of enlightenment. The other is also ordered, but its order calls up in us a sense that there is something we will never fully understand, that we will never entirely grasp – that we can never truly know. That is the ineffable; that is the sacred. It is the moment where architecture reaches its highest, where material form takes us to a non-material realm. In the profound joining of the rational and the unexplainable, Hawksmoor – or Borromini or Kahn or Ando – unite the aesthetic and the sacred, and make of them not separate realms but one inseparable thing.

And so, I think, is the goal of all that has been said over these past few days. There will always be those to whom the aesthetic is the sacred, and there will always be those to whom the sacred has no need for the aesthetic. But I would like to believe that part of the reason all of us have gathered in these two connected symposiums is in the hope that it can be otherwise, and that the very idea of the transcendent can in itself become a kind of common language that joins architectural and religious experience, seeing them not as the same, but each of them as something that can enrich the other, and bring it to a new level of meaning.

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