Reports From the Forbidden Zone

Volume 51, Issue 4, Michael J. Crosbie

As we went to press with this awards issue, I participated in a celebration of a special program in sacred architecture at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Walton Visiting Critic program, which brings architects, designers, and scholars of sacred architecture to CU to serve as visiting critics in a special studio focused on the design of spiritual environments. Over the years visiting critics have included Antoine Predock, Craig Hartman, Juhani Pallasmaa, Alberto Campo Baeza, Claudio Silvestrin, Eliana Bórmida, Prem Chandavarkar, Rick Joy, Susan Jones, and myself.

The program is unique—I’m not aware of another in the world that dedicates an endowed studio and visiting critic program to this topic, and it goes beyond the design of religious architecture. Any kind of structure, any type of environment, for any kind of use—can be spiritual architecture. Building a bridge between the merely functional and the spiritual imparts architecture with a timeless yet existential dimension.

This awards issue demonstrates the growing critical importance of engaging architecture students in the creation of spiritual places. Several years ago the Faith & Form awards program opened a category for student work, and winning projects have demonstrated a deep and abiding engagement of students and faculty in searching for the spiritual through design (and in some cases construction). While Catholic University is clearly a pioneer in this realm, more architecture schools are creating opportunities to explore the spiritual in architecture.

As I’ve lectured and written in this journal and elsewhere, the exploration of spiritual architecture in architecture school is often met with hostility by faculty and administration (it is a veritable “forbidden zone” in many programs). But over the years students have continued to push this design agenda forward, often in resistance to studio critics who feel threatened to consider architecture in a theoretical framework other than a secular or abstract one, which discounts or ignores the experiential power of architecture. In a free-ranging discussion of the topic that I moderated at the CU event, Pallasmaa warned that the result is a flattening of architecture to one dimension that leaves no room for the spiritual—essentially a denial of a key part of the human condition.

There is obviously a thirst to explore the spiritual dimension in many architecture schools, and students should continue to push for its liberation from the forbidden zone. What can architects and teachers do to make this happen? We can work to create a “space” within the intellectual culture of architectural education for students can consider the sacred. The questions open to inquiry can be challenging (some might even describe them as “difficult”), and immersing students and faculty in such inquiry often pushes them beyond their comfort zones. But isn’t that the point of any kind of education?

A student named Sina whom I worked with described the CU studio as a “retreat.” It reminded him of why he wanted to be an architect: that his primary desire was to create places that give a person a momentary pause, perhaps a private haven to pray. Places that invite us to become someone else, maybe just for a little while—to leave one’s form and space behind and to occupy another—to transform and to transcend. Sina told me that the studio led him to conclude that it is architecture’s fundamental purpose to do this: to transform and to transcend—the same purpose as spirituality itself.

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at

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