It is a great pleasure, in fact an honor, to be here again, in this extraordinary place, in this amphitheater and on these grounds that I think all of us would agree constitute sacred space of a very special sort. I think that one of the most important aspects of this week’s theme is that it does not limit sacred space to purely spiritual, religious space; the mission this week, as I understand it, is to go far beyond this to inquire as to what makes space in every realm of life sacred, or what gives it the potential to become sacred. Ken Burns has talked of battlefields and Elizabeth Barlow Rogers of landscapes, and I will try to be more general and talk of architecture in a broader way, although I will say a lot about purely religious space, about space created with the conscious intention of making it spiritual, or sacred, and about the difficulty of doing this in the modern age.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to talk about sacred space without talking about time. One of the most important things about any sacred space is the way in which it transcends our normal sense of time, and by that I don’t mean that it has no connection to a time, but only that shows us with absolute clarity what the meaning of the word “timeless” is. Let’s take Chautauqua itself as an example. It represents its time, absolutely, and could not have been built at another time—it is a great fallacy to believe that “timeless” means having no time, the way “stateless” means having no country—yet even as this place remains firmly planted in the nineteenth century it connects to all other times, and feels a natural part of them. That is timelessness—being of a time, and yet also feeling right in every other time. Chautauqua is of the nineteenth century, and yet we cherish it as something that is much more than a relic. We perceive it as a vital force in our own time. That, we might say, is one of the key components of the sacred, though it is hardly enough by itself, or everything timeless would also be sacred.
My task this morning is to try and say a few words about the idea of sacred space and how it connects to architecture in general, and to modern architecture in particular, and of course to think a certain amount about how architecture connects to the spiritual in the first place. Some of this, by the way, is what I’ve tried to do in Why Architecture Matters, which is an attempt to get underneath history and styles and get to the essence of how we experience buildings, of how they feel, and how they affect us. That book is about much more than sacred space, of course, and about much more than space, period, since it gets into every aspect of what makes a building, and how we perceive buildings. I’m mentioning it now not to give myself a plug, though I do indeed hope that all of you rush out and buy it, but because it does deal a lot with the question of space, and about the close connections between space and the aura of the sacred, about which I’ll say more shortly. The book also deals with another idea that has some relevance to Chautauqua, which is the question of style, and how little, I believe that style actually means in terms of our larger perceptions of architecture—the book makes the argument that scale and shape and texture and materials and light and plan and mass and volume all mean much more than the notion of style, which is in many ways a system of pigeonholing buildings and creating false and misleading distinctions. Whatever it is that makes Chautauqua sacred—or not sacred—isn’t the Victorian detailing on the houses, or the classicism of the Hall of Philosophy, or the Art Deco touches on Norton Hall.
Chautauqua is an eclectic mix of buildings of different styles and periods, which makes it very much like a traditional town or city outside these gates, although here there is a very different balance between public space and private space than there is in traditional towns; the overwhelming feeling is of public space being far and away the more important side of the equation. Most towns do not have places like the Amphitheater and Bestor Plaza at their center. The pride of place given to public space, like the sense of transcending time, is one of the other things that helps to make Chautauqua sacred, although it, too, is not enough in and of itself. Another notable thing about Chautauqua’s campus is the absence of much here that we could call modern, which is striking enough to make me want to ask whether there is an inherent contradiction between the idea of modernism and the sacred.
In the Ethical Culture Society in New York, a building at Sixty-fourth Street and Central Park West that some of you may know—it was erected early in the twentieth century in a vaguely Art Nouveau, Viennese Secessionist style—there is engraved over the proscenium arch the words, “The place where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground,” a phrase that might be an apt description of the intentions of Chautauqua, although in this case these words were chosen by a humanist congregation that wanted its building to avoid traditional religious references. The phrase, “the place where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground,” while it might well describe Chautauqua, also accurately sums up what has often seemed like the attitude of modernism toward sacred—the idea that a building would acquire its spiritual quality by how profoundly it represented human aspiration, not because it showed the glory of God. After all, how could a place built by human beings truly reflect the glory of God? What the makers of Ethical Culture were saying, in effect, was that it was far wiser to be modest and to celebrate what men and women could do than to pretend, as the architects of the ornate Baroque churches did, that they could evoke the spiritual by creating overwhelming grandeur. Better the attitude of the nineteenth-century Shakers than of the sixteenth-century Europeans, they were telling us.
Now, I suppose that Ethical Culture phrase could be taken to mean that any place where people come together in healthy, positive fellowship is holy, no matter what it looked like. Perhaps this was in Mies van der Rohe’s mind when he designed his boxy brick chapel at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, a building that seems almost to celebrate its conventional identity. Indeed, it is so plain looking that it bears a distinct resemblance to the campus’s boiler plant nearby. The one difference, of course, is that the boiler plant has a smokestack, which led the architectural historian Charles Jencks to observe that a visitor were brought to the campus and shown these two buildings and then asked which one was the chapel he would almost surely say the boiler plant, since it is the building that appears to reach heavenward.
More often, however, there have been different aspirations on the part of modern architects—not necessarily skyward, but hardly indifferent to the notion that the sacred did not require special expression. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, in his great Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, finished just over a century ago, certainly did not want the space to be just any place. He had very clear ideas of exactly how that holy ground, if I can use that phrase again, would be formed, and if it was not to be like the space of a traditional church, it would hardly be a neutral or a conventional space, either. It was very Wrightian, taking many of the ideas he had been exploring in his houses to a new scale and, I think, to a new degree of intensity, not just in the complex route by which you move into this space, and now I actually regret not bringing a power point, since it would give me a chance to show you how you enter Wright’s sanctuary by going into a low entrance, moving down and under, and then rising into it—what a wonderful thing, when you think of it, to come into a religious space by ascending to it—but also by the extraordinary way in which Wright balanced natural light and artificial light, openness and enclosure, solid and void, light and dark, horizontal and vertical, and also the balance between a sense of clear order and a sense of mystery.
The architectural historian Neil Levine has called the processional movement into Unity Temple “a progression toward reason and light. The power of reason, not mystical faith, is responsible for this sense of serenity and peace,” he has written. Let’s think about that for a moment. “The power of reason, not mystical faith….” But the very idea of rationality, of course, contradicts religion. Modern architecture, as everyone knows, often made claims to being utterly and totally rational, a claim that, if true, would make modernism altogether incompatible with the qualities of sacred, or religious, space. Of course, as everyone knows, thankfully modernism was not always true to its claims, and not nearly as rational as it pretended to be. Indeed, to come back one more time to Wright’s Unity Temple, I think the greatness of that sanctuary space, the great power of this space, takes us beyond reason; while we can see it rationally and understand it rationally, there is something more going on.
We might do better by invoking that wonderful word that Le Corbusier famously used in describing his great chapel at Ronchamp, in Eastern France – “ineffable,” the un-understandable. Le Corbusier described this building, which has remarkable, sensuous curves to it, as containing “ineffable space.”
Now, Ronchamp is nothing like Unity Temple at all, although both of them rank among the great religious structures of modern times. But they also bring us to an important paradox that it’s hard not to think about when we talk about sacred space in modern architecture, or indeed in any architecture, 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 tend to start, as Le Corbusier did in his description of Ronchamp, 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 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 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—they weren’t crafting space as such, even though what they did yielded space that today we do not hesitate to think of us powerfully spiritual.
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. 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, and we can analyze it down to the last stone. Yet as every one of us knows, it evokes feelings beyond the measurable, beyond the rational—and if it does so for us today, imagine how it looked to people in the Middle Ages. The genius of the Gothic is the way its structure exists to bring us to a place that, for all intents and purposes, defies the very essence of structure. The great cathedrals celebrate God by becoming ephemeral, light, rising toward heaven in a way that makes us feel awe.
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 it may also describe a kind of space I 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. They could not be more different from the space we are in now, which is at once larger, more complex, and more intricate. Yet somehow these utterly simple spaces can evoke profound thought and transcendent feeling, too, as does a Japanese temple or a Zen garden, outwardly simple and by all appearances rational, yet 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 does not even seem unusual or exotic, unlike a Gothic cathedral, where you know instantly that you are in a special and unusual place. But is that necessary? Do we need to feel instantly that architecture is establishing a connection between the everyday and the sacred?
Let me go beyond this to pose a deeper question, which is whether architecture can in itself actually create the sacred in the first place. Maybe we should ask whether 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? 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 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. Those of us here this morning may well think that these mega-churches look more like big box warehouses, and compared to Chautauqua, they do. But they bring plenty of people to feelings of deep religious passion, even if we might think they look like a Wal-Mart.
Let me mention again that line inscribed in the Ethical Culture Society in New York, the words “The Place Where People Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground”—since that, for many people, is the very point. 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, or at least not so much as Christianity. 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 – is a pretty consistent theme in synagogue architecture, even though there are many remarkable synagogues that might appear to do otherwise, including one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright outside of Philadelphia toward the end of his career, Beth Sholom Synagogue, where I had the honor of speaking last year as part of the commemoration of the building’s fiftieth anniversary. I do have to say that the last couple of years have been unusual ones for me so far as religious structures are concerned, in that in the same week that I gave that talk at Wright’s synagogue I also had the privilege of speaking in Trinity Church, Henry Hobson Richardson’s great Episcopal church in Boston. And the previous year I spoke at Unity Temple. So it’s been a rather humbling time for me so far as encounters with great religious structures are concerned.
And while I am on the subject of encounters with great religious structures, not too long ago 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—now once again I wish I had slides, because this is an unusual building that most of you probably don’t know—but in any event this building, wonderful as it is, could not be described as containing 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. 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 way apparently a traditional cross was installed in a church Richard Meier designed for Rome after the building had been finished and the users of the building decided that the architect was safely back home in New York. Now to the other group, not the worshipers but the seekers of architectural experience, the religious rituals may have mattered even less 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 magnetic allure to architectural pilgrims. So what makes a space sacred can differ hugely depending on who is doing the experiencing.
This is true in plenty of cases—those of you who have gone to Rome to see the great Baroque churches may feel in Sant’Ivo or San Carlino a similar disconnect between those who come to worship Borromini and those who come to worship God, and I have to say that most of the time, the former group seems clearly to the latter. At Ronchamp or at Louis Kahn’s Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York, or Unity Temple, it is also often the case that architectural pilgrims can 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. 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, architects tend to assume that the power of the experience come wholly from the architecture. I think this is architectural hubris. While great architecture surely can and often does enhance religious experience—I think we can take that as a given—architecture by itself is not particularly likely to create it. When I spoke at Trinity Church I remember observing that the qualities of that room that give it its great architectural power, its shape and the force of this vaulted ceiling, and the color and the decoration, the things that combine in such remarkable balance to confer an air of sanctity, are not necessarily the things that make space sacred for the worshipers for whom it was, at least ostensibly, created. It may do this, of course, but it is often the case people find that religious space is transcendent 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 to create a sense of awe, and the aura of the sacred. As I’ve now said multiple times, we surely see it realized here, all around us in this room. And it continues to be something we seek in new architecture, recognizing that to continue to aspire to the sacred is itself significant – since, as the German architect Rudolf Schwartz wrote, the quest for the sacred is itself sacred. And often in our time, the quest has been successful.
[If we move from Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright up to the present, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s work surely achieves a level of the sublime, its qualities emerging 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 in Japan with, say, Fay Jones’s Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas to underscore the point. Ando’s church is a concrete structure, and seems at first glance to be just a box. 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 chapel by Fay Jones 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, to move to the twentieth century, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House? I can think of few more sublime places than the Farnsworth House, even though it is not by any normal measure a sacred space. But 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. So do so many of Wright’s other houses, and so does the Guggenheim Museum. And we might say the same of Louis Kahn—is there a difference between the sacred space of his Unitarian Church and the space of his Kimbell Art Museum, or his British Art Center, or his courtyard overlooking the Pacific at the Salk Institute? In these cases, and they stand for many others, you might say that the aesthetic has reached such intensity and risen to such heights that it becomes indistinguishable from the sacred.
We have in our culture conflated the aesthetic and the sacred, which is why, I suppose, that the art museum seems to have replaced the cathedral in our culture. 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. Still, I’m not entirely sure that means that we have simply substituted the aesthetic for the sacred – or, to use the architect 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 spiritual, leading us to make the aesthetic 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. Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston, which I referred to a moment ago, was in its time a radical building, an extraordinary work of sculpted space and decorated surface and directed light. So was Ronchamp, and so were many other twentieth century attempts to create sacred space. The very strangeness of Ronchamp’s 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, it seems, make any kind of space, like Frederick Keisler, the architect who was famous long ago for creating what he called the “endless house,” with space that seemed to twist and 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—what we have called mysterious space—was in and of itself a way in which a modern architect could signify 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 made unusual, complex space and unusual shapes so commonplace. Technology, we might say, 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 Eero 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, when swooping roofs and curving walls are commonplace, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic plays at Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall and Chicagoans listen to concerts at Gehry’s Pritzker pavilion in Millennium Park, both of which are far more complex forms than Ronchamp. I might mention here, parenthetically, that of the two significant public buildings put up in the last few years in downtown Los Angeles, Walt Disney Hall by Gehry and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a boxy building of tan-colored stone by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, it is Gehry’s concert hall that seems to have more of the qualities we associate with the sacred. The cathedral is more conventional as a shape, the concert hall more unusual, harder to grasp, more mysterious even, and perhaps more promising, in a way, of transcendence.
So it is not easy to maintain a sense of mystery in an age in which technology enables all, or seems to enable all. Is mystery the most important thing, then, the thing that connotes the sacred? Do we need mysterious space—ineffable space—in a rational age, and if we do, can we any longer create it? Do we know how? Does it matter?
It is an aura of mystery, as I said earlier, that characterizes Gothic cathedrals, and so much other great ecclesiastical architecture. Mystery is what distinguishes, say, the great English churches of Sir Christopher Wren from the, to my mind, even greater churches of the English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor—one represents the height of the rational, but the other carries it beyond the rational. Brilliant and magnificent as Wren is, we can analyze and understand it – Wren’s wonderful St. Stephen Walbrook in the City of London is logic raised to its highest, most glorious potential. But go next door to Hawksmoor’s St. Mary Woolnoth, or a short distance away to Christ Church Spitalfields, and you experience much more unusual space, 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 before him or Kahn or Ando after him – unite the aesthetic and the sacred, and make of them not distinct realms but one inseparable thing. These architects have taken the material, taken elements of the physical world, and put them together in such a way as to take us away from the physical world.
It is a wonderful paradox, really, because the greatest sacred spaces also represent the material world at its most material—in its most intensely physical, even sensuous, so you might think it would push us away from the spiritual, because it makes us think so completely of the world of sensory experience. And yet, of course, the opposite thing happens when we are in one of these great buildings, we move away from the material world, not closer to it. Such is the great achievement of sacred space when architecture can create it: the way the physical things that make up this architecture take us into the realm of the non-physical.
Let me say one more word before I conclude about the other kind of sacred space, the sacred space that is not created by what architects have done to shape it, but by what people have done with it, or by what has happened in it—the category that I think we would agree Chautauqua belongs in. We confer an aura of the sacred on battlefields, as Ken Burns has told us, and on places like the Mall in Washington, in part because of extraordinary things like the March on Washington and the Vietnam war demonstrations and the Obama inauguration that have happened there, but also because of the physical form of the place, which is very much the town square, the common, of the entire nation, and is surrounded by symbols like the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, which have their own aura of the sacred.
And then there is Ground Zero, in New York City, which achieved the aura of the sacred for reasons more like a battlefield than for anything about its physical form. It is sixteen acres in the middle of our most important city, but extraordinary and terrible things happened there that make it, in the minds of many, like Gettysburg forever a sacred place, if only to honor those who so tragically died there. I mention it now in part because it is back in the news, and in part because it reveals how difficult and complex the whole business of sacred space actually is. It’s in the news, as all of you know, in part because some progress is finally being made on building there once again, both on the memorial to those who died and the new buildings that will replace the twin towers of the World Trade Center. But the other reason it is back in the news is because of the proposal, which so many people found troubling, to build a cultural center for the Islamic community on a site a couple of blocks away. This seemed, to some people, to violate the very essence of this sacred space, as if Islam, whose radical adherents created the tragic events, were flaunting this connection in the face of those who suffered—as if they were saying that the site still belonged to them, as it did on September 11th.
It is easy to see how it appeared that way, and there is no doubt that it would have been easier all around if this plan had never been proposed. And I find it odd that the people objecting to it were indifferent to the fact that this project is proposed by moderate Islamic factions, and led by a cleric who has been outspoken in his opposition to the radical Islamic factions behind terrorism. But in any event, the idea that it should be forbidden, that something like this merely by being allowed to exist violates the sacred nature of Ground Zero, is wrong on many counts, including the fact that it violates the very principles of freedom and openness that our country was created to sustain. In the same way that I found it regrettable, perhaps even repugnant, that many of the families of those who died managed to push away the so-called Freedom Center, which was to have been a new museum, and the Drawing Center, a cultural institution, because they would not commit to exhibitions that would be limited to September 11th or would only present the events of Ground Zero in a particular way, the idea of banning this center is a very strange thing to do in the name of freedom.
But there is also the point, maybe more relevant to us this morning, that this proposed center wasn’t within the sixteen acres of Ground Zero, but two blocks away. The supposed offense was that it was too close, that it was within the aura of Ground Zero. I agree that sacred space has an aura, and I wouldn’t want billboards next to the battlefield of Gettysburg any more than you do, but this isn’t the same thing. This is the middle of a city, and the ongoing life of this complicated, diverse, energetic, frustrating and creative city needs to go on—sustaining our urban life on this piece of land, in fact, is the most important way to respond to the terrible attacks of nine years ago. This is the sacred in the middle of the profane, we might say, although I think it is better to think of it as the sacred in the middle of real life.
And that is the greatest lesson of Ground Zero and this whole painful controversy: that what makes Ground Zero sacred, in the end, is not only those who died there, although we are honor bound to respect them in every way we can. It is also the way in which Ground Zero, for all its sacred quality, is not a thing apart. It is a thing amidst, a thing amid ongoing life. And as such, it teaches us something crucial about sacred space, which is how much of its meaning can come from how it connects to the rest of life. Perhaps the most important thing sacred space can do isn’t to transport us to a new and different world. Perhaps its real gift is to be able to show us that the spiritual is right here, hidden in the rational world we know. The lesson of Ground Zero is like the lesson of Chautauqua, which in turn is like the lesson of all sacred architecture, all sacred space: that we need only look about us, and feel with a new intensity the space and light and solid and void, and the sound and the quiet, and listen to the presence of the past, and from there look into ourselves. And then we will find the transcendent.