The “S” Word

Volume 45, Issue 1, by Michael J. Crosbie

A few weeks ago I was invited to make some remarks at a gathering at Cornell University’s New York City Center to open an evening panel discussion by architects and academicians on “Space, the Sacred, and the Imagination.” The event being held was partly to celebrate two recently published books, The Religious Imagination in Modern and Contemporary Architecture (reviewed in this issue), and Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture (which will be reviewed in the next issue of Faith & Form). My brief remarks focused on the desire to experience a sense of the sacred in our lives through architecture and art; and on the idea that that this yearning is at the core of the human condition, whether one believes in God or not. This hunger for the sacred seems to have risen to a pang, as evidenced by a proposal made by the philosopher Alain de Botton in his new book, Religion for Atheists, to build a series of temples for atheists on sites across the United Kingdom. The first, a “Temple to Perspective,” a black monolith of 151 feet, would be constructed in the City of London’s financial district. Botton’s argument is that awe-inspiring architecture should not be just for believers; atheists should have their own architectural monuments, erected to glorify their belief in nonbelief.

The panel quickly veered away from a discussion of the sacred in architecture, and instead was recast as a desire for architecture that is “immeasurable,” “ineffable,” “oceanic,” “possessing absence,” a “void,” or a “vanishing point.” It seemed that most of the panelists were uncomfortable with the very word “sacred,” freighted as it is with the requirement of belief – something quite outside the control of the architect. One panelist commented that this discussion was a more profound assessment of transcendent architecture because it did not engage in the “purely instrumental, functional aspects” of sacred space.

It appeared that most of the panelists were much more comfortable speculating on a secular sacred architecture, abstract and safe, than on one that demands human engagement to make it sacred. Only one panelist, Anne Rieselbach of the New York Architectural League, dared to use the “S” word to question whether architects can indeed create a space that makes religious enlightenment possible – one shaped by liturgical needs that serves a religious belief system. She even ventured the possibility that a space cannot be sacred in itself, that it is only through its setting as a place of gathering for worship, contemplation, prayer, meditation, or fellowship that architecture can become sacred. It is the very instrumental nature of architecture, its functional aspect, that helps to call forth the sacred.

The palpable discomfort of many architects, artists, and academicians in using the “S” word could be a symptom of their own disbelief or uncertainty. But an attempt to disengage the act of belief, of coming together as a community of believers, from the space in which that gathering happens – why it happens – keeps architecture and art at a safe distance from the immeasurable, the ineffable, and the mysterious. This is why De Botton’s program for temples for atheists doesn’t make much sense, either. The worship of architecture and art is secondary to their roles as midwives of the sacred. Awe is in belief.

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