Volume 50, Issue 1 :: Michael J. Crosbie with Photos by Robert Benson
What is the role of religion today in a world torn by strife? In many instances young people now see organized religion as a problem, not a solution—a force in the world that divides people, that is intolerant, that builds walls around ideological camps that are at war with each other. Many are alarmed at how some around the world have appropriated religious organizations to use as weapons against others who do not share their beliefs, or to achieve their own worldly, selfish ends.
Today, people around the world, especially young people on college campuses, are reacting against the perceived intolerance of organized religion. Surveys from such respected research organizations as Pew, Gallup, and Trinity College all show a precipitous drop in the percentage of young people who are members of an organized religion. Yet, the number is growing of those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. They are looking for avenues to spirituality that value dialogue, understanding, empathy, and authenticity. Young people want to make a difference in a shrinking world, where individuals of different nationalities, cultures, and faith traditions live amid one another. Theirs is a global generation. For the first time in the history of the world we cannot choose to ignore “the other.” We must find ways to live together, to help each other, to pursue our own spirituality while respecting that of others, even those who might choose not to believe. As Pope Francis recently reflected: “We live in societies of different cultures and religions, but we are brothers and sisters.”
The recently complete Snyder Sanctuary at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, is an architectural answer to facilitate this spiritual search, to help people of all backgrounds find common ground, and to inspire them. It was designed by Newman Architects (based in New Haven, Connecticut) to provide a space for sharing, a place for those from different faith traditions, values, and cultures to meet and engage in dialogue, and to nurture the university community. The sanctuary is a spiritually uplifting space that fills one with awe. It inspires prayer, meditation, contemplation, transcendence, celebration, independence, and (perhaps, most importantly) interdependence.
The design of the sanctuary is itself a meditation on how architecture can bring people together, in community, instead of driving them apart. This pristine, white space with its polished concrete floor and natural light is defined by seven tall walls that spiral around a center point, reinforcing the idea of “centeredness,” of balance, of repose. The concrete walls create a chamber permeated by channels of light—direct and luminous—that trail through the space and across the planes that contain it throughout the day. These channels of light are admitted through slivers of space between the walls. At night, the channels transmit the illumined interior, visible from across the campus and an adjacent thoroughfare, a beacon that cannot help but communicate hope. For millennia, within the world’s spiritual architecture light has represented the presence of the deity, or has exemplified truth itself.
The walls both literally and symbolically lean upon each other, providing a web of support among the ensemble of planes. These concrete planes were lifted into place; the sanctuary construction embodies the value of uplift, of elevation. The metaphor is profound: we all need to help support each other (particularly in times of weakness or doubt). Here, the architecture exhibits a certain tenderness, inviting us to see “the other” as a potential alley—a brother or sister. Sometimes we are strong enough to take another’s burden, other times we seek the reinforcement of our fellow human beings. Within the bearing of one upon the other, we find the human spirit at its most powerful.
The geometry of the spiral implied by the sanctuary’s interior also touches something very deep and timeless. The spiral is the path of harmonious growth. In fact, certain proportional systems in art and architecture actually follow those found within the structure of the natural world, such as the interior of the Chambered Nautilus, or the pattern of how the seeds on the face of a sunflower grow. The very geometry of the spiral is found in interstellar space as well as at the atomic level. Snyder’s spiral geometry connects it to a great web of being, found throughout our universe. Yet, Snyder Sanctuary does not contain traditional religious symbols. It relies instead on light, color, planes, and space to inspire and to create an aura of the spiritual.
The Ying to the sanctuary’s Yang is a labyrinth inscribed in the ground right next to it. Labyrinth patterns are found in cultures all over the world, including those prehistoric. They can symbolize growth, the seasons, and the human journey through time and space. Many of the world’s religions have used the labyrinth as a form of prayer, a meditative amble, where one can journey alone or with others, during the walk coming close to each other at times and then moving far apart. The labyrinth is a geometrical allegory for the path through life, but it is not a maze (as life at times appears to be). Walking the labyrinth is a walk of faith, following a path through what might appear to be aimless treading, trusting that, with faith, you will arrive at the center.
Through light, space, materials, and geometry, the design of Snyder Sanctuary recalls some of the timeless architectural qualities that have marked sacred places around the world for thousands of years. It is a new sacred space, a spiritual place for a new generation, yet it touches deep chords across the history of architecture that have long resonated in those special spots on earth that people have created to express the eternal hope in our shared humanity, and the spirit that connects us all.