Whose House is This?

Volume 48, Issue 3, Michael J. Crosbie

Many designers, architects, artists, and craftspeople see their ultimate calling as the creation of home for humankind through the environments they help fashion. Of course, our day-to-day existence is often filled with the minutia of the making of these places—designing, documenting, selecting, procuring, verifying, delivering—the thousands of steps that it takes among us and our collaborators to bring a project to fruition. But in those details we must never lose sight of the bigger project at hand: the creation of a world or, more humbly, a home (in its broadest sense). Within this realm of making, many view the creation of the Lord’s house as a “meta-calling,” so to speak—above and beyond our work to create everyday space and place. There’s a story that someone once asked Eero Saarinen what is the dream commission of every architect, and he is said to have replied: “A cathedral.”

I recently found this exalted view of our creative work challenged in a book by the philosophical geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, Religion: From Place to Placelessness. I was directed to Tuan’s book by a quote at the beginning of Denis Bryne’s article in this issue. Tuan’s argument in the book is that for truly religious people, those who, he writes, follow the religion “…associated with Buddha, Jesus Christ, and the great prophets of Israel…the true home for human beings is never a geographical place—a holy city or mountain—somewhere on Earth. It is always elsewhere.”

If this really is the case, how can we truly view the making of sacred places and spaces as the highest calling, when the ultimate home for whom we design form is not of this Earth? That, in fact, the making of a place on Earth, which as professionals we are so dedicated, is seen by the true followers of the world’s religions as at its best merely a distraction, and at its worst a human conceit?

Tuan’s insight seems at odds with another observer of religion and the making of sacred place, Mircea Eliade, whom Bryne also quotes in his article. In The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade writes that “…to settle somewhere, to inhabit a space, is equivalent to repeating the cosmology and hence to imitating the work of the gods.…” Through our actions we create a new world, a new home, as a way of imitating the divine. When we do so, it is an act of faith, an expression of belief. Eliade further notes: “…for religious man, every existential decision to situate himself in space in fact constitutes a religious decision.”

Tuan and Eliade might seem at odds, but perhaps they are describing two sides of the same coin. For Eliade, it is the essence of our humanity to make a sacred place for ourselves in a profane world, and in doing so we engage in the work of the gods. Eliade was an historian of religion, so his view is anthropological: how do human beings make a place in the world that they see as sacred? Tuan, the geographer, writes from a similar position. He views sacred place-making as ultimately a way of making ourselves as humans at home in the world. The way of making sacred place is shaped by human culture and history. But Tuan’s great insight is that the sacred place we create is primarily for us to share belief and to be in community for only our brief time on Earth—not necessarily a House of the Lord.

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