Sacredness in the Suburbs

Volume 48, Issue 2 :: Gregory Marinic

Ethno-spiritual architectures and emergent heterotopias in the context of ex-urban sprawl

“Behind the wall of the city, life rested on a common foundation, set as deep as the universe itself. The city was nothing less than the home of a powerful god. The architectural and sculptural symbols that made this fact visible lifted the city far above the village or country town. To be a resident of the city was to have a place in man’s true home, the great cosmos itself.”

Lewis Mumford

Stone-carved main dome interior of the Sri Swaminarayan Mandir, Houston.

Stone-carved main dome interior of the Sri Swaminarayan Mandir, Houston.

Prior to the 20th century, religious buildings were among the largest and most significant structures in cities across the US. Reflecting multiple religious identities, they illustrated the inherently complex ethno-cultural composition of American society. Lewis Mumford contemplated the role of the “spiritual” in the city, believing that a clear distinction existed between the spatial agency of public and sacred realms—and that sacredness undeniably connected religious buildings to the transcendent. Mumford proposed that sacred spaces linked us to something apart from our immediate physical environment and existence—something far beyond ourselves. In this sense, he opened a door to the sacred in architecture that engaged both simultaneity and heterotopia.

This article focuses on emerging ethno-sacred-spatial conditions within the sprawling and globalized metropolis of Houston, Texas. Casting its lens upon migration and spiritual identities, it reveals how ordinary suburban neighborhoods offer new opportunities for a form of city making. It draws attention to several Asian spiritual traditions to celebrate the increasingly multicultural built environment of suburban Houston. Five sacred structures offer examples of architectural strategies that appropriate, adapt, and construct suburban sacred spaces. From modest adaptations to substantial ground-up interventions, immigrant identities and heterotopian spaces of otherness are sampled as they merge and re-shape the larger ethno-spiritual landscape of contemporary America.

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Sacredness, Urbanity, and Suburbia

Throughout history, immigrant communities in the US have devoted considerable resources to sacred architecture. Religious structures are a primary indicator of assimilation, reflecting the continual integration of people and their traditions into a dynamic American context. Most places of worship convey a desire for symbolic permanence and financial stability, while less formal sacred spaces impart an understated and ephemeral relationship with the new land. As the most diverse city in the United States, Houston’s multicultural urban landscape is inherently hybridized.¹ Immigration and suburban settlement patterns have resulted in the continual shifting and blurring of social customs, consumer tastes, and vernaculars. Within this environment, the spatial and formal characteristics of recent sacred structures reveal the diversity, complexity, and inherent flux of heterotopias.

Michel Foucault employed the term heterotopia to describe spaces that blend multi-faceted layers of meaning, as well as simultaneity and connectivity to other places. Heterotopias satisfy the basic human desire to mark and redefine space. They are contingent upon compromise, yet they seek to territorialize and provide collective security. As globalization shifts the notion of “territory” from local to global, the contemporary relevance of utopianism has increasingly migrated toward the potential for ersatz-utopias, or heterotopias, within our quotidian world.² Heterotopias are exceptions to the dominant city model, existing as a place that blends the stasis of the enclave within a larger armature. Appropriating aspects of remembrance gleaned from the past, heterotopias represent the physical manifestation and approximation of culture among a shared people. In Houston, recent religious architectures illustrate the incremental transformation of homogeneous suburbia into a place of diversity. Asian immigrant communities have increasingly established their own sacred spaces of otherness—on their own terms—intimate heterotopias within a sprawling landscape of subdivisions, strip-malls, and obsolescence.

Suburban Exile

Migration based on economic stress and political motivation fuels a significant flow of immigration to the Houston metropolitan area. As the fourth largest city in the country, Houston is currently its most diverse municipality. How have various immigrant communities found traction, security, and spiritual cohesion in the midst of a vast and amorphous city? Territorialization and re-appropriation of former lives is manifested in vigorously adapted suburban areas. Cultural narratives linked to spiritual activities assert the role of memory in reproducing, retaining, and regaining identities within this unfamiliar built environment.

In early 21st- century America, immigrants are more often than not bypassing cities altogether in favor of the suburbs. The built environments that they encounter in suburbia are far less cohesive, walkable, or architecturally inspired. Suburban religious buildings generally lack the quantitative and qualitative value of those within the historic urban core. In place of downtown grandeur of conventional suburban homogeneity, new spiritual architectures in Houston’s periphery—adapted existing buildings as well as autonomous, purpose-built structures—are emerging. These sacred structures, primarily meant for non-Western religious traditions, reflect ethno-spiritual practices, economic prosperity, and the incremental pursuit of building heterotopias. “Exiled” sacred architectures, implanted into an otherwise unassuming and conventional suburban landscape, transmit past memories that are nevertheless subjected to contextual hybridization in American suburbia.

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Appropriations, Adaptations, and Autonomies: Five Sacred Structures

Spirituality is a shaper of identity in the growing Asian communities of suburban Houston. While differences in spiritual practice determine spatial distinctions among religious adherents, most recent immigrant groups remain definable, yet open to their larger communities. In Houston, immigrants have developed religious architectures in much the same way that previous waves have contributed to the American sacred architectural landscape. Through socio-economic advancement, each community has simultaneously carved out greater autonomy and civic engagement. This autonomy has resulted in new approaches to making buildings and landscapes, allowing a broader perspective on spirituality to become visible and assimilated. The following five structures reflect change in the sacred landscape of suburban Houston:

Sun Young Taoist Temple: In Asia, Taoist temples are sited within dramatic and remote mountainous landscapes. For urban sites such as the Sun Young Taoist Temple in Houston, natural topographies are translated into informal gardens. Originally called Tien Hou, Sun Young is located in the Second Ward, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood that figured prominently in the early industrialization of the city. Founded in 1988 by the Sino-Indochinese Association of Texas, it is one of Houston’s few shared Chinese-Vietnamese and Taiwanese sacred spaces. The temple represents a compromise of two traditions and is dedicated to the Chinese Goddess of Heaven, Tien Hou. Sun Young conforms to Taoist architectural principles and is adorned with elaborately carved columns and icons. Its plan configuration adopts the traditional Chinese court-garden form, consisting of a main altar, central divine hall, scriptural-mediation room, reception rooms, and a meditation garden. As a contemporary interpretation, Sun Young conveys architectural and interior decoration influences of the Ming and Qing dynasties.³ It is a negotiated space, reflecting the Vietnamese adaptation of a generally Chinese architectural aesthetic that serves both the Chinese-Vietnamese and Taiwanese communities.

Wat Buddhavas Theravada Thai Buddhist Temple: The temple is located just beyond the borders of the Inwood North subdivision in north Houston. Conceived in the late 1970s, Inwood North was built as a developer-master-planned community of substantial, custom brick homes governed by a strict homeowner’s association. Wat Buddhavas is located in a densely forested, informal neighborhood called Recreation Farms. Built in 1958, the neighborhood is characterized by modest one-story tract ranches and trailer homes sited on culvert driveways alongside open-ditch streets. Here, the self-conscious suburban formality of Inwood North gives way to the casual rural informality of Recreation Farms. Wat Buddhavas positions itself at the cusp of two very different suburban worlds, within a typical “Houston” seam where the conventional and unexpected converge. Primarily serving the Thai community, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, the temple reaches out to a larger multicultural context. Annual Lunar New Year services and seasonal festivals offer opportunities for non-Buddhists to participate in the spiritual customs of this open and welcoming community. Resident monks take their lunch communally, sharing home-cooked food with those attending daily prayer services. Served in Bangkok street-vendor style, these quintessentially authentic meals feature curries, duck eggs, regional noodle dishes, and fresh papaya salads that are not typically found in local Thai restaurants. An afternoon at Wat Buddhavas is quite like stepping across a temple threshold in Chiang Mai.

Sri Swaminarayan Mandir: Mandir is a Sanskrit word that refers to stillness of the mind, as well as a place where the soul floats freely to seek peace, joy, and comfort. In Hinduism, the mandir is a place of worship, prayer, and community. From conception to completion, the Hindu ethos for building a mandir requires that various sacred rites be performed during the construction process. Built in 2004 as the first traditional stone mandir in the US, the design and building process of the Sri Swaminarayan Mandir in southwest Houston conforms to ancient Vedic architectural principles. The Sri Swaminarayan Mandir is based on astronomically derived mathematic computations and geometric configurations that determined its precise proportional relationships. During site selection, soil was tested and prayers were said to seek permission from the earth to disturb its natural state. Once the foundation had been established, a small pot containing sacraments was ceremoniously placed below the garbhagriha—an unlit shrine. Arguably one of the most substantial buildings in American suburbia, the Sri Swaminarayan Mandir is a load-bearing stone structure without ferrous metal reinforcements. The absence of metal reduces corrosion and extends the temple’s lifespan to over 1,000 years. Furthermore, it is believed that metals concentrate magnetic fields and impede meditation.

Vietnamese Buddhist Center: In 1989, the Huyền Quang Youth Organization invited Buddhist monk Thích Nguyên Hạnh to Houston to help establish the Vietnam Buddhist Center (VNBC) on a 12-acre site in Sugar Land.4 Since that time, Fort Bend County has grown into one of the most diverse communities in the US. The VNBC draws most of its members from the Vietnamese Buddhist community including recent immigrants, as well as second- and third-generation Vietnamese Americans. VNBC is monumental in scale and a large statue of the Buddhist saint Quan Âm figures prominently in plan. Rising above a footbridge that crosses a manmade pond, it is the largest statue of Quan Âm in the Western Hemisphere and an object of curiosity within an otherwise ordinary suburban American context. Veneration of Quan Âm within the Vietnamese community is common, and the Vietnamese Buddhist Center is a main pilgrimage shrine for the faithful. As a boddhisattva, or enlightened individual who aids humanity, she is revered throughout Asia as Guanyin and viewed as a compassionate universal mother who aids those in need.

Our Lady of Lourdes Vietnamese Roman Catholic Church: Vietnamese Catholics were closely associated with the South Vietnamese government, leading them to be disproportionally represented among those fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The first generation of Vietnamese Catholic immigrants joined established Catholic churches within their own neighborhoods. Many Vietnamese Catholics brought a deep sense of devotion to their faith, as well as distinct cultural traditions that set them apart from American Catholics. Originally part of St. Jerome Parish, the Vietnamese Catholic community of northwest Houston eventually grew in size to require an independent parish. At the same time, they began building independent social, financial, and philanthropic support networks to support its construction. Our Lady of Lourdes Church is purpose-built for the Vietnamese community and emblematic of the process by which Vietnamese Catholics have gained greater autonomy. The church’s design conveys historically referential postmodernist architecture, blending the French roots of Vietnamese Catholicism with the architectural memory of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Saigon. Likewise, it demonstrates a more-than-300-year tradition that cross-pollinates Catholic rituals and architectural conditions with long-standing aspects of Vietnamese culture. Our Lady of Lourdes is among the largest and most elaborate Vietnamese Roman Catholic churches outside of Vietnam.

Reflecting on the Sacred in Suburbia

The discussion of the American urban religious landscape in architectural discourse is nothing new. However, translated to a suburban Houston context, recent sacred architectures reflect a similar level of aspiration—one that has been more typically associated with inner city religious structures of the early-20th century. These emerging sacred structures demonstrate alternative approaches that are both highly formalized and substantial. Ritualized and traditional, they attempt to implant carbon-copied physical memories of the past into American suburbia.

As Foucault proposed in Of Other Spaces (1967), these historical reproductions, set within their autonomous compounds, juxtapose within a single actual place the memory of several places and contradictions. Furthermore, their role not only reflects on spirituality, but creates a space of illusion—a heterotopia—confirming the cultural and political resilience of displaced communities. Much like previous waves of immigrants that passed through Ellis Island during the early-20th century, many recent immigrant groups have similarly fled poverty, political upheaval, and religious persecution. In this regard, the newly emerging heterotopias of Houston are collectively building a multicultural diasporic landscape of nuances, hybridizations, and cross-pollinations. These “architectures” are shaped not only by architects, but through the collective memory and participation of an entire community building several heterotopias—at once—in America.

  1. “From Houston Region Grows More Racially/Ethnically Diverse, With Small Declines in Segregation.” A Joint Report Analyzing Cen- sus Data from 1990, 2000, and 2010. A report of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research & the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas Authored by Michael O. Emerson, Jenifer Bratter, Junia Howell, P. Wilner Jeanty, and Mike Cline, Rice University, Houston, 2012.
  2. Michel Foucault. Of Other Spaces (1967), “Heterotopias.” This text, entitled “Des Espace Autres,” and published by the French journal Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité in October, 1984. The text was the basis for a lecture given by Foucault in March 1967. Although not reviewed for publication by the author and thus not part of the official corpus of his work, the manuscript was released into the public domain for an exhibition in Berlin shortly before Foucault’s death. It was translated from French by Jay Miskowiec.
  3. Tien Hou Temple Archive at the Sun Young Taoist Temple, Houston.
  4. Vietnamese Buddhist Center of Houston Archive, www.vnbc.org, Retrieved 2013-03-12.

Gregory Marinic is Associate Professor in the School of Design at Syracuse University, Program Coordinator of its Environmental and Interior Design program, and an associate editor of the International Journal of Design Education.


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