Searching for New Sacred Space

Volume 49, Issue 2 :: Michael J. Crosbie and Julio Bermudez

A design studio explores the changing definition of what makes a place sacred.

Matthew Hoffman and Lisa Passeri use the garden metaphor to create sacred place for the community, giving the neighborhood a green space. The vertical structure is a chapel.

Matthew Hoffman and Lisa Passeri use the garden metaphor to create sacred place for the community, giving the neighborhood a green space. The vertical structure is a chapel.

Over the past few decades, particularly in the West, the concept of sacred space as a setting for the rituals of organized religion has been changing, some might even say radically transforming. Surveys by such esteemed groups as Pew Research and the Trinity College Survey on Religious Identity have shown a precipitous drop in people who belong to organized religions, particularly in the Christian and Jewish faiths and among those under 35. Membership in mainline faith traditions has and continues to decline. Today the largest single segment of the population in the US describes itself as “Nones”: affiliated with no organized religious group. People of all ages are turning away from organized religion but they are not choosing to be atheists. Rather, they are looking for a more genuine, personal experience of the spiritual in their lives.

More people today describe themselves as “SBNR”: spiritual but not religious. They are suspicious of the institutional power of all religions, no matter what the faith tradition. And they are searching for an expression of that spirituality. The idea that you need a building or a space as the place to practice your religion or to be spiritual is being questioned. What does it mean for religious architecture and sacred space when you ask these questions: Do we need a building at all to be religious, to be spiritual, to practice our belief? Does the changing nature of how we identify ourselves as spiritual open a new realm of what a sacred space can be? Is there a future for religious architecture at all?

Exploring Questions Through Design

These are some of the questions that we were eager to explore in a graduate design studio at The Catholic University of America in the School of Architecture and Planning’s Sacred Space and Cultural Studies concentration last fall. The studio’s students (Joseph Barrick, Devon Brophy, Ariadne Cerritelli, Kathleen Crowley, Megan Gregory, Shawndra Herry, Matthew Hoffman, Sina Moayedi, Ugochukwu Nnebue, Emily O’Loughlin, Lisa Passeri, Madeline Wentzell) were invited to learn about the shifting landscape of spirituality taking place in the US and abroad, and to reflect on what it means for the future of sacred space. In the first part of the studio we shared statistical data on people’s changing attitudes toward organized religion, how these changes are expressed in personal ideas concerning spirituality, and how these social shifts might be having an affect on the creation of sacred space. In the context of these cultural developments we included two other factors: the connection between spirituality and sustainability (seeing the stewardship of the earth as an element of belief, as recently expressed by Pope Francis in his encyclical, Laudato Si), and the urban concentration of the world’s population (for the first time in human history more people live in cities than in rural areas). These social and intellectual contexts were prompts for the students to design two studio projects: a quick sketch problem dealing with the concept of “situational” sacred space; and a longer, multi-month design problem about the creation of a sacred place outside of the conventional notions of a “religious” building. Both design problems were set within an evolving, thriving urban neighborhood. This article focuses on the larger project.

A private garden behind the chapel in Hoffman/Passeri’s design allows connection with nature, signifying the biblical location of humans’ first encounter with God.

A private garden behind the chapel in Hoffman/Passeri’s design allows connection with nature, signifying the biblical location of humans’ first encounter with God.

We provided the students with a range of readings on these topics: the shifting landscape of spirituality; ideas about “situational” and “substantive” sacred space; demographic changes in organized religion; the place of the city as the context for sacred space; the creation of “safe places” for exploring one’s spirituality beyond the walls of religious buildings; the notion of living “in cathedral” within a city. It was noted that many of the changes in spiritual belief are being led by Millennials, those between the ages of 18 and 34, the demographic that included most of the studio’s students. We asked the students to reflect upon their own experiences regarding organized religion, the contours of their own spiritual lives, and the spiritual “search” that they might be engaged in. We told the students to consider the studio itself as a “safe place” where they could present their views on religion and spirituality. Working in teams, the students made short presentations reflecting on the readings, their own beliefs, and how architecture might respond to these new circumstances. How might they address new attitudes about belief that are being led by their own generation, and how could they explore a realm of design that has few architectural precedents, to give form to these new frontiers of belief?

The student presentations regarding their reflections on the reading material and their own attitudes about spirituality revealed a willingness to greatly broaden the realm of the sacred. Students found new opportunities to define the sacred in such activities as in performing music; in moving their bodies through space in the medium of dance; in digitally connecting with people and events around the globe; in sharing with and caring for other human beings by giving and receiving; in creating a safe place for women who are victims of domestic violence; in landscape and nature serving as a setting for contemplation, reflection, and celebration; in providing support to those seeking to strengthen their bodies and spirits through nutrition and exercise. What these presentations revealed to us, as the studio critics, is that we needed to carefully consider how to define the design problem we were to assign. Conventional notions of sacred place and space would not do.

Defining a New Sacred Place

The students’ wide range of attitudes about what the sacred might be and how architecture could respond to it prompted us to make the design assignment more fluid than a typical program list of required spaces with certain sizes and adjacencies. We identified a site in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington, D.C., not far from the Catholic University campus. The students’ site analysis would include not only the physical neighborhood but also the historical/social/economic changes that this neighborhood is experiencing, as shifts in population, property development, and social class change the face of this historically African-American neighborhood. We identified an under-developed site at the northwest corner of Georgia Avenue and Randolph Street (a Wendy’s currently occupies the site and would be removed). We encouraged close observation of the character of the neighborhood, its people, and its assets and encouraged students to talk with residents and business operators. We wanted students to note the neighborhood’s existing sacred spaces and its potential as a setting for contemporary sacred space. We also encouraged them to pay particular attention to the message of Laudato Si, the pope’s recent encyclical, about our estrangement from the natural world and the ecological and spiritual consequences of that distancing.

Joseph Barrick and Ariadne Cerritelli conceive of this new spiritual place as a way to interact with the people around the globe, through a variety of media, such as a large screen visible from an open plaza.

Joseph Barrick and Ariadne Cerritelli conceive of this new spiritual place as a way to interact with the people around the globe, through a variety of media, such as a large screen visible from an open plaza.

The program for the design problem essentially evolved from the student presentations about the readings we had assigned and their own ideas about where the sacred might be found. The “Petworth Place for Spirit and Wellbeing” should reflect some of the elements of contemporary ideas about spirituality, along with some recognition of traditional sacred spaces. Petworth Place was to be between 25,000 and 40,000 square feet, with a combination of places for the spirit, places to share community, places for outreach, places for creation, places for worship. Then we gave the students a program list of the kinds of spaces/places that they might consider in the design of Petworth Place:

Program List

  • A place to pray, to leave a prayer and to take a prayer.
  • A place to serve meals to those in need.
  • An outdoor space that has some privacy.
  • A place devoted just to view the moon and stars.
  • A place for target shooting.
  • A place where young people and old people can share.
  • A traditional worship space.
  • A place where items and non-perishable food can be deposited by neighbors for those in need.
  • A place to cry and grieve a loss.
  • A program element that is “Your Thing.”
  • A place where one can obtain information and guidance on health and nutrition.
  • A pub or coffeehouse, with a place for groups to share conversation on spirituality/religion.
  • A place to slow down and appreciate the wonders of nature.
  • A place where art can be made, displayed, and performed.
  • A place to find, experience, and practice silence.
  • A place to house or attend those in (you define) need.
  • A spiritual home for those feeling spiritually homeless.
  • A place to give or receive.

The program was flexible in the sense that the students had to address eight spaces/places from the program list: the four bold items were required in every design, and four were to be chosen by the students. It was up to the designer to decide how much space the program uses should occupy to successfully serve their function. The program element identified as “Your Thing” could be defined as a space that the student was particularly interested in exploring as a new kind of sacred space.

A ‘double wailing wall’ in Barrick/Cerritelli’s scheme allows local Petworth residents to take a prayer and leave a prayer through moveable drawers.

A ‘double wailing wall’ in Barrick/Cerritelli’s scheme allows local Petworth residents to take a prayer and leave a prayer through moveable drawers.

Because this was not a single-use building, but multifaceted in its spaces and functions, it should offer opportunities to design “in cathedral.” The term “in cathedral” was coined by author and educator Elizabeth Drescher and explored by Keith Anderson in his recent book, The Digital Cathedral (Morehouse, 2015). Being “in cathedral” recognizes the sacred in everyday life, in everyday places, the network of relationships among neighbors and even strangers, and the witness of believers beyond the confines of an enclosed sacred space. Petworth Place should be “in cathedral” with the surrounding neighborhood and the people who live there.

Related to this fluid sense of the sacred was the notion of “situational” versus “substantive” sacred space, which we also encouraged the students to consider. Historian Jeanne Halgren Kilde writes in Sacred Power, Sacred Space that “substantive” sacred space is that in which a divine presence is believed to reside, and which makes the space sacred. This view posits “sacredness” inherent in objects, including buildings. But another orientation sees sacredness as “situational”: anyplace can be sacred or holy depending on the presence, location, and actions of human beings. “Situational” sacred space or place is suggested in Matthew 18:20, in which Christ is quoted, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The verse describes a relational aspect to the sacred among people in community. Petworth Place presented opportunities to design this kind of “situational” sacred space. (text continues below images)

Pilgrimage as a way of discovering the sacred is at the heart of Devin Brophy and Madeline Wentzell’s design, in which a labyrinth occupies much of the site, leading to a traditional sacred space. Contemporary sacred space at the corner of Georgia and Randolph offers a social setting for discussion of spirituality and philosophy.

Pilgrimage as a way of discovering the sacred is at the heart of Devin Brophy and Madeline Wentzell’s design, in which a labyrinth occupies much of the site, leading to a traditional sacred space. Contemporary sacred space at the corner of Georgia and Randolph offers a social setting for discussion of spirituality and philosophy.

Section of Ugochukwu Nnebue and Sina Moayedi’s building shows the central rotunda space. One ramp culminates in a view to the west, toward Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral; the other ramp terminates on the roof with views to the east.

Section of Ugochukwu Nnebue and Sina Moayedi’s building shows the central rotunda space. One ramp culminates in a view to the west, toward Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral; the other ramp terminates on the roof with views to the east.

Spiral ramps lit by natural light from above are the heart of the Ugochukwu Nnebue and Sina Moayedi design, which embraces many of the world’s religions and takes as its theme ‘giving and receiving,’ which they note is at the core of human love.

Spiral ramps lit by natural light from above are the heart of the Ugochukwu Nnebue and Sina Moayedi design, which embraces many of the world’s religions and takes as its theme ‘giving and receiving,’ which they note is at the core of human love.

The Search for the Sacred

The search for the sacred through the design studio assignment of Petworth Place resulted in what we think are some provocative, challenging schemes, shown in this article. But the design process seemed at times frustrating. We concluded that we had asked the students to take on a design project that had no clearly defined expectations—studio critics as well as students were in the search together, which at times made it difficult to provide guidance through studio critiques and to help the students to move forward. However, we know that the changing nature of sacred space right now is a question without ready answers and a clear path to solutions. In fact, we had to admit that we, as design critics, might not be ready to accept the new kinds of sacred places and spaces that the students might develop. This became apparent during some of the formal design reviews, when the whole question of what could or should be considered sacred and what wasn’t, and architecture’s role in defining it, was debated by reviewers and students alike. It was at that point that we realized that the design studio had achieved a measure of success: to broaden, challenge, confront, and consider the fact that a sense of the sacred is not static and unchanging, and that every age needs to ask and try to answer what it is.

Julio Bermudez is associate professor at Catholic University and heads the Sacred Space and Cultural Studies concentration. Michael J. Crosbie was the visiting Walton Critic at CUA during the fall 2015 semester, when the studio was conducted. Architects Susan Jones and Joan Soranno also participated in the studio.