Amazing Grace

Volume 42, Issue 2 :: by Julio Bermudez

New Research into “Extraordinary Architectural Experiences” Reveals the Central Role of Sacred Places

Most of our knowledge of the relation of architecture to spirituality addresses the “objective” conditions of sacred buildings: their material, spatial, functional, and other empirical attributes. Long ago we discovered that, if well designed, architecture could evoke the sublime. It is precisely because churches, synagogues, mosques, and monuments can influence consciousness that we build them. And, because objective conditions are perceptually accessible, measurable, and testable, our empirical knowledge of sacred architecture has advanced over time.

Yet holy places are not objective constructs existing on their own, “out there.” Quite the contrary, the power of such environments lies in how they shape experience. It is their eventfulness in our consciousness that makes them unforgettable, profound, ineffable. Their value comes from how they change us. However, the subjective phenomenology of sacred places makes it hard, if not impossible, to observe, study, and understand them. Our methods to circumvent such a problem include personal testimonies from impeccable sources. If we go through the published record, we can find a good (but not large) number of such reports. However, this approach and its results always remain subject to scientific dismissal and rational skepticism; personal accounts cannot be generalized (and thus become knowledge) because they lack statistical significance and repeatability. Lacking a good understanding of the psychology behind the phenomenology of sacred spaces means to see only one side of the relationship between spirituality and architecture.

This article presents results of research designed to address our incomplete knowledge. While the investigation was not originally intended to focus on the experience of places of faith, the findings are heavily weighted toward them. The study walks a fine line between collecting a very large number of experiential accounts using a rigorous methodology (to gain scientific validation) and retaining the freshness and the “thickness” of the reported experiences.

Conducting Surveys

From April 2007 to April 2008, two parallel and independent online surveys (one in English, the other in Spanish) were conducted to gather information about people’s most profound, lasting, and/or intense experiences of architecture. The surveys defined Extraordinary Architectural Experiences (or EAEs) as:

…an encounter with a building or a place that fundamentally alters one’s normal state of being. A “fundamental alteration” is a powerful and lasting shift in one’s physical, perceptual, emotional, intellectual, and/or spiritual appreciation of architecture. Contrarily, an ordinary experience of architecture, however interesting or engaging, does not cause a significant impact on one’s life.

EAEs were selected because their exceptional nature amplifies the experiential effects of architecture and thus makes them easier to study than under normal circumstances; guarantees recall accuracy and thus facilitates data gathering and reliability,1has lasting consequences in the lives of both the public and professionals,2 and is usually tied to well known places and/or perceptual features that simplify later objective analysis.

Both surveys had the same 36 questions about the experience (25 multiple-choice and 5 open-ended questions) and about the participant (6 questions). The survey was designed to be completed in about 10 minutes and was openly available over the Internet. The surveys produced the largest number of personal testimonies of EAEs ever collected (2,982: 1,890 in English and 982 in Spanish). However, since participation was totally voluntary, open, and unsupervised, the result does not constitute a scientific sample of any particular population. In fact, due to the procedures and instruments employed to produce, distribute, advertise, and complete the poll, the participating populations are skewed versions of the general populations. Respondents predominately have an undergraduate or graduate college education (90% / 90%); (b) report architecture as their field of study (55% / 69%); and (c) are between 25 and 40 in age (39% / 39%) with the 41-55 age bracket (28% / 36.5%) trailing behind (please note: throughout this article, numbers related to the English survey are noted in roman type, with Spanish statistics following in italic type).

Without denying the limitations of this skewed representation, there are also some advantages. For instance, having a population with a solid understanding of architecture gives us more confidence about the collected data. This is particularly relevant because we are dealing with issues that are very hard to grasp, measure, and describe. The very large number of responses obtained supports studies with statistical significance within the responding population.

It is impossible to cover the breadth and depth of the survey’s results in the space of this article. Therefore, I’ve limited myself to findings from the study that may be of most interest to Faith & Form readers.

Phenomenology of EAEs

Let us start with the way in which EAEs unfold in experience and their effects. The beginning of EAEs was said by respondents to be sudden (51.5% / 58.5%)3 and surprising (76% / 83%). Survey participants also reported very high levels of spontaneity in the experience (78.5% / 91%). With regard to their end, people stated that EAEs tended to finish without their consent (51% / 44%). However, if we consider the very high level of “don’t recall” responses (16% / 19%) in the termination question, we see support for a non-consensual answer: who would consciously finish something so exceptional and then not recall it? This would put the “finishing-without-consent” statistics at a high 67% / 63%. In other words, the exceptional experience finished as it started and unfolded on its own!

When probed on how EAEs were felt, respondents reported introspective/silent states (87.5% / 87%) characterized by no talking (62% / 57%), strong body reactions (56.5% / 43%), and a higher level of awareness than normal (92.5% / 78%). Although only a minority reported weeping (18% / 28.5%), it is such an incredibly strong response that its relatively strong presence (roughly 20% / 33%) confirms the power of EAEs. Also, participants overwhelmingly agreed that EAEs were intense (80% / 88.5%), profound (89% / 91.5%), and vivid (85.5% / 84.5%).

There is remarkable consistency among these responses. For example, the powerful emotional tenor of EAEs neatly dovetails with the higher state of awareness claimed. High attention also takes place because the individual cannot predict and/or control what is to occur next. Since the person experiences the event as it happens (i.e., suddenly, surprisingly, spontaneously), she or he must remain vigilant, awake. An experience that is so free yet so alive points towards a suspension of the preconceptions, ideas, and will that individuals bring to most situations. In other words, EAEs are in-progress experiential discoveries based on a certain abandonment to the moment, a “being in the present” open to what the present reveals. Bodily sensations during EAEs (e.g., goose bumps, weeping, trembling, chills, etc.) demonstrate a poignant state devoid of substantial intellectual intervention. These findings suggest that, despite the usual assumption of subjectivity, EAEs seem to move away from an ego-centered experience to plunge consciousness into a unique state that is neither objective nor subjective, but is both simultaneously. This set of experiential qualities must somehow be related to shutting down verbal functioning and the simultaneous opening of other ways of knowing, feeling, and sensing beyond left-brain, neo-cortex, or discursive operations.

Qualitative Power of EAEs

Although these data provide an initial psychological profile underlying EAEs, such statistical study fails to convey the amazing quality of these exceptional experiences. For example, consider the following descriptions in the words of three survey respondents:

A simple Gothic cathedral in central France: “I walked into this church and was struck by the light and the straight soaring lines of extremely tall walls that curved to form the ceiling. The whiteness of the walls, the absence of stained glass, the lack of ornamentation–just the skeleton really, the stark yet graceful construction exposed–stopped me just inside the door. The lines seemed to fly up to welcome the light, inviting it to shine way down onto the stone floor below. The shafts of light repeated into the distance and their brilliance created elongated rectangles on the floor emphasizing the vastness of the interior. This visual impact caused an instantaneous physical reaction: quiet shivers of joy, a slow exhalation of an unnoticed held breath, and no desire to move, save for the slow smile I allowed myself. As I had entered from the rear of the church through the main doors, my first impression was that the church had been gutted. Empty yes, yet the space had presence, a fullness of spirit. I was overwhelmed with the light pouring in and the peaceful, glorious space created by the purity of the structure.”

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain: “Passing through a second set of doors, I was immediately overcome by the sheer scale of the structure I had entered. Despite the clutter of scaffolding, I felt somehow lifted into the space. As I entered further I was amazed by the intensity. And I turned and saw a wall of stained glass full of life and color abstracted in form. It became a part of me. Despite its religious context, I felt as though I understood it…and that somehow…it…understood me. I don’t know how to describe the “it” part, but I certainly was unable to ignore the penetrating bond that was created. I sat down where I was able and did what I could to hold back the tears, pretending to blow my nose as the rest of the visitors passed by me. I eventually went back and took a picture of the place, but it serves only as a reminder. The image conjures the fringe of the feelings that were generated, but can’t quite simulate the overpowering nature of the event.”

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey: “As I walked into the narthex of Hagia Sophia I remembered being told that it was a building that had done unprecedented things with the dome, but I hadn’t quite “gotten” it in images or slides in art history classes. But then when I walked into the center I was completely overwhelmed because these rays of light were coming through the circle of windows at the base of the dome and filled the space with diffused light. I had been in a lot of religious buildings and I am not a religious person, but nothing quite prepared me for the feeling of mystical awe like that misty bright light that hung in the central space.”

These stories are representative of the ones from more than a thousand that people freely recounted in the surveys. Most are narratives describe events as overwhelming, transcendental, or spiritual. There is no denying that people attained an exceptional state of consciousness that was in many ways similar in sensation, emotion, intuition, or insight to that of profound religious or mystical experiences. We need only to go back to William James’s 1902 seminal book The Varieties of Religious Experience, and review its analysis of the psychology behind holy epiphanies. We can also consider more contemporary studies of the neurobiology of religious experiences4 to see parallels. And while such resemblance between EAEs and mystical experiences may seem initially strange, it is not so on second thought. Philosophers such as Plato, Plotinus, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Gadamer have recognized the fundamental relationship between beauty and sublime states. Our survey provides scientific validity that not only supports these claims; it also offers a wealth of psychological details about EAEs not well known until now. At its best, the most material of human artifices, architecture, delivers us to the ultimately immaterial. This may not be the case for everyone, but it is true that a vast number of people find EAEs as gateways to the sublime or holy.

Hence, it is not surprising that survey participants unambiguously reported that EAEs forever modified their understanding and appreciation of architecture (81.5% / 80.5%). Let us remember that these experiences irreversibly and fundamentally changed the interpretive framework of something very dear and well known to most members of the surveyed population (55% / 69% had architecture as their field of study). Yet EAEs accomplished such feats for a huge majority of people in both surveys! Such a forceful and transformative shift cannot be really explained unless we acknowledge at some level the numinous quality of EAEs.

Nature and Outcomes of EAEs

Summary table of both polls

The survey inquired about the nature and outcomes of EAEs. Chart 1 is a summary of both polls. EAEs are exceptionally “Emotional,” “Sensual-Perceptual-Physical,” “Timeless,” and “Pleasurable” experiences that deliver “Insight,” “Beauty,” “Joy/Satisfaction,” and “Peace.”

From these results, we can interpret that EAEs are aesthetic epiphanies characterized at least initially by their “Sensual/Perceptual/Physical” qualities. They afford a direct and intuitive discernment that, when related to the other survey data, provide profound, vivid glimpses into the nature of ultimate reality. In this context, the reported “Satisfaction/Joy” outcome has to be seen with an EAE’s “Pleasurable” nature understood not only as sensual delight butalso as a multilayered ecstasy that also includes intense feelings, intellectual fulfillment, and even spiritual realization. Finally, “Peace” as an essential result of EAEs has to be seen in the context of the third-ranked “Timeless” quality. Pervading it all is the intense emotional nature of EAEs that enables attention to rise to a peak from which beauty can be appreciated, penetrating insights attained, satisfaction and joy felt, and the attainment of an overall sense of peace.

An unexpected finding was the low ranking of “Analytical/Intellectual” for describing the nature of an EAE (6th / 5th). This does not necessarily signify a lack or irrelevancy of thought or analysis in EAEs, but that “thinking” comes fifth or sixth in relevancy and needs to be downplayed if the EAE is to unfold uninhibited. EAEs cannot be studied or explained as critical, analytical, or intellectual experiences.

Top Ten Places for EAEs

Top ten sites that prompted EAEsThe survey asked participants to name the place where they had experienced their EAE. Compiling the responses generated a list of buildings well known for their beauty and power. Chart 2 includes the list of the top ten sites that prompted EAEs. Notice the significant consistency in the two survey groups.5

The fact that so many respondents from different origins, languages, ages, genders, and cultures report EAEs at the same places strongly supports one of the fundamental tenets of scientific discovery: repeatability. Although an absolute replication is not possible due to the experiential nature of the event, the sheer number of testimonies for each one of these places and their consistency cannot be disregarded as being “subjective.”

Because most of these places are or had originally been religious buildings, it makes sense in the context of the findings of this research that architecture and spirituality naturally find one another during EAEs. Such exceptional events are invited by built beauty and it is logical to expect societies not only to notice such a link over time, but to exploit it as much as possible in their places for holy purposes.

It is significant that many respondents were surprised and changed by EAEs in buildings that they most likely knew intellectually beforehand (e.g., from history courses, travel books, etc.). The presence of these places (Walter Benjamin’s famous concept of “aura”) was strong enough to break through intellectual familiarity and offer a totally new and therefore surprising and spontaneous experience. This means that quality cannot be indirectly learned but must be directly apprehended, found, tasted in actual experience. If English were Latin, we could say that “cognoscere” can never be or replace “sapere.”


Although the research findings presented in this article begin to map the phenomenological structures and processes common to experiencing architecture in spiritual depth, much remains to be done. One important area of work will be to look at the correlation between the reported subjective states and the objective conditions present in a particular environment. For example, how do the psychological states reported by multiple individuals at the Pantheon in Rome correlate to the physical attributes of that place? Are there links between such relationships and those found for other buildings? Can we develop psychological and architectural frameworks or profiles that favor EAEs? What about the impact of gender, age, culture, and the like on EAEs? The answers to such questions could have important implications in our understanding of the relationship between architecture and spirituality in ways that begin to balance our one-sided knowledge base.

In the meantime, the thrust of the findings gives scientific validity to what the ancients and designers of sacred places for millennia have known intuitively: architecture can touch the soul and fill the spirit. This occurs as an extraordinary aesthetic experience of an inexhaustibly deep, sublime, and spontaneous reality: a reality framed, presented, and built as architecture.6 The fact that beautiful buildings devoted to such awesome tasks continue to move us across epochs, civilizations, and cultures is testimony of the presence of archetypal conditions at play. While we cannot depend on our analytical abilities to enjoy EAEs (nearly 2,900 individuals agreed that we need to hone our emotional, perceptive, and intuitive skills instead) we can definitely use our intellect to direct a renewed study of sacred places. It is clear that they still hold many secrets that can assist us in the creation of new places that will be extraordinary.


  1. When asked about recalling their EAE, the majority of survey participants agreed it to be “Strongly Vivid” (63.5% / 63.5%) with “Moderately Vivid” a clear second at 33.5% / 34%. Vague recollection was reported by only 3% / 2.5% of the people. This remarkably high level of recall convincingly points at the imprinting power of EAEs in memory and brings a high reliability to people’s testimonies.
  2. Refer for instance to: Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place (New York: Knopf, 1990); Lindsay Jones, The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000); Robert Ivy, “The Essence of Education” (Editorial),Architectural Record 07 (2006) p.17; Norman Koonce, “Erasing the Boundary Between the Physical and the Spiritual”, the AIA Journal of Architecture (July 2005): 2.
  3. The fact that the numbers for “gradual arousal” were still high (46% / 39%) implies that a slower and more steady arrival of the EAE may not necessarily diminish its startling effect.
  4. During the 2006 IFRAA Symposium in La Jolla, California, Patrick Russell and Andrew Newberg presented compelling evidence showing that neuro-scientific studies of religious experiences may apply to perceptual phenomena in religious architecture. See also the work of Richard Davison at the University of Wisconsin Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience.
  5. Two buildings in the English Survey and one in the Spanish Survey show some bias toward “local” conditions. These are the Salt Lake City Public Library and the LDS Temple (Utah), and the Banco de Londres in Buenos Aires. This is due to my particular connections with populations in Utah and Argentina, (I estimate a 20/30% presence of the total in each survey). The relatively focused choice of the individuals in these populations deforms a bit the overall result. For the record, I must say, however, that these three buildings are examples of very good architecture.
  6. We are reminded of Michael Benedikt’s book For an Architecture of Reality (New York: Lumen Books, 1987) where he maintains that architecture’s fundamental role is to present reality.

Julio Bermudez is an Associate Professor at the University of Utah College of Architecture + Planning. His research interests are in the phenomenology of aesthetics and the relationship between architecture, culture, and spirituality. The author wishes to thank the thousands of individuals from all over the world who gave their time to participate in the survey. Not only did each selfless act help advance the state of the art of our discipline but, more important, is a living proof of the true and staying power and relevancy of architecture in our lives.

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