Posted in practice on August 2, 2016 4:42 am EDT

Architecture and the Sacred

A treatise on how the sacred is achieved and perceived -- and a thought provoking read for the architect and AVL systems designer.











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TAGS: architecture, avl design, education, sacred space,


By Ed Van Herik

As I walk in I ask myself: Is God here?

Those are fuzzy questions, to be sure, but I’m not the first to think in those terms. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade wrote about sacred space and sacred time in his book The Sacred and The Profane. There, he said that man was drawn to a life lived in both sacred and profane space and time. To orient himself, medieval man built villages around the town’s cathedral, which often towered over other structures, providing a touchstone to the transcendent as the townspeople went about their everyday tasks.

Eliade, who called that medieval cathedral an axis mundi, also spoke of time spent in prayer and worship as sacred time, separated from the profane time of everyday life. It is an interval where the kids’ soccer game isn’t of primary concern, nor is there anxiety over drawing deadlines. It is time devoted to the divine.

To orient himself, medieval man built villages around the town’s cathedral, which often towered over other structures….

Although life today is structured very differently, I think that people who pray in an otherwise empty church are probably drawn there by its sacred quality.

It’s a feeling I’ve experienced in large Gothic-style churches scattered throughout the Midwest, where I grew up, and in European houses of worship like the Cathedral of Salisbury in Salisbury, England, the duomos in Milan and Florence, Italy, and St. Peter’s in Rome. I’ve also sensed it in giant Islamic houses of worship like the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, and the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara, Turkey.

Once, I thought it was primarily a question of size; these buildings are immense. But, no. I’ve had the same feeling in intimate chapels in the United States and in the Aslanhane Mosque, a small 13th century house of worship still standing in Ankara.

Stepping back into profane space and time, I’ve asked myself how architects have been able to create sacred spaces so effectively.

I have a couple of ideas:

• The sacredness is enhanced, or, in some cases, achieved, though simple design. Narrow arches, decorated domes and fluted columns instinctively draw the eye upward, where many people and religious traditions say God lives.

• A sense of stillness can be a matter of baffles, insulation and careful design to muffle sound, making it easier to concentrate on the transcendent. Even in the Blue Mosque, with its constant stream of chatty visitors, a sense of quiet calm is evident a few feet beyond the railing separating the tourists from those in devout prayer. (Trip Advisor tells its readers that the Blue Mosque has a “peaceful atmosphere.”)

I wonder what other design elements are at work as well.

I do know that, when a congregation commissions a new church building, they may talk about their demographics, the types of services they hold, and the specific needs of their new house of worship. But if you step back, their ultimate goal is to communicate with God. While they may not articulate their needs that way, having a building that helps them access the divine is really what they’re after.

I know it’s what I’m after.



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