Designing for the Subarctic Sacred

Volume 51, Issue 2 :: Tammy Gaber

Svartifoss Waterfall, Iceland.

Founded in 2013, the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University in Ontario was the first new school of architecture in Canada in 40 years. The first undergraduate cohort graduated in 2017, and in the fall of 2017 the Master of Architecture program was launched with three parallels studios each with a theme tying into the mission of the school: “Architecture and Community,” “Architecture and Indigenous design,” and “Architecture and Craft.” I led a group of 12 graduate students in a Craft studio that centered on the design of a sacred space in the subarctic climate of Iceland. This one semester graduate studio is intended to launch students into graduate-level design and research through several methodological approaches, including craft of making and drawing; primary analysis onsite; literature review and research culminating with a design proposal and self-published document of the process.

Hallgrímskirkja Church, Iceland, by Guðjón Samúelsson, 1945.

Hallgrímskirkja Church, Iceland, by Guðjón Samúelsson, 1945.

Designing a Graduate Studio on Craft

The studio was grounded in the fundamental relationship of craft and craftsmanship in design and the students’ familiarity with design/build culture fostered in the undergraduate program through directed group projects created for the local community. In this studio the students from the beginning of the course were tasked with individual exploration of forms and materials tackled at various scales from the understanding of analogue and digital systems of geometry. Early in the semester there were workshops in fundamental geometric systems using analogue first principles. These exercises occur early in the semester so that one can recognize different geometric families in both natural formations and architectural ordinances existing in Iceland, which heavily reference the hexagonal structures of basalt geological formations throughout the country. Richard Sennet’s The Craftsman was examined throughout the semester to reinforce the critical discourse of making, meaning, and design and to encourage students to articulate their positions on craft.

“Craftsmanship” may suggest a way of life that waned with the advent of industrial society – but this is misleading. Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake… craftsmanship focuses on objective standards, on the thing in itself…[and] explores these dimensions of skill, commitment, and judgement in a particular way. It focuses on the intimate connection between hand and head.

The back-and-forth dialogue between making and designing framed the design of this studio. The palpable qualities of physical explorations in the form of analogue and digital model making at various scales activated the design process pursued in this studio. As the semester progressed with design development, the students developed their geometric studies to 3D interpretations using both analogue and digital model explorations of one geometric family and material testing to create a detail of the building wall system or liturgical furniture.

Locating the Sacred in Craft

For this studio, the connection between craft and the design of a sacred space was integral. As a building type, sacred space becomes both the container and facilitator, framing transcendental or spiritual experiences. The qualities of the sacred space are choreographed, curated, and crafted at all scales to emphasize and express this. The phenomenological qualities of a sacred space are directly connected to the craft of every detail, every sequence of space, every material, and every governing geometric system of organization. Juhani Pallasmaa perhaps expressed this best:

We tend to think of spirituality and sacredness in architecture in terms of specific building types, such as religious buildings and spaces, built especially for devotional purposes. Religious architecture and sites – churches, chapels, mausoleums and cemeteries – intentionally express their spiritual purpose through deliberately evoking experiences of awe, devotion, piety, authority, mystery, ecstasy, timelessness, or afterlife. The experience of sacredness implies a feeling of transcendence beyond the conditions of commonplace and the normality of meanings. A sacred space projects experiences in which physical characteristics turn into metaphysically charged feelings of transcendental reality and spiritual meanings.

With these phenomenological qualities in mind the students researched a specific faith group and the prototypical buildings associated with the faith group. This was important in the self-directed research to access and analyze ritual and liturgical requirements as well as historical and contemporary precedents for the faith group the student chose to focus on in preparation for the design of a sacred space.

Locating the Sacred in Iceland

For this first cohort, the majority of sites and regions studied in the undergraduate program were in northern Ontario. The opportunity to explore another subarctic landscape within relative proximity and with even more extreme landscape qualities was a lesson in design, especially when layered with both the efficient and raw constructions of development as well as extraordinary examples design. Lessons of locally responsive design can be explored. Clearly the hexagonal extrusions of the geological formations have inspired, in many ways, architectural form. From literal reference to and inclusion of basalt rocks (like the ones found at the dramatic Svartifoss) at the National Theater of Iceland, to the dramatic neo-Gothic hexagonal extrusions at Hallgrimskirkja, to the richly layered and complex glass blocks composing the Harpa Music hall, the influence of the environment may seem to focus on form. But material inclusion and exploration through architecture in the country indicates a very regional engagement of landscape to architecture. To better situate the focus of sacred design, each student was tasked with independently researching a faith practice of their own choice and identifying parameters such as demographics in Iceland, liturgical ritual, and prototypical buildings and elements.

The dominant religion in Iceland in pre-history up until 1000 CE was Norse Paganism, locally called Aastru. In 1000 CE Christian missionaries from Germany Christened a large portion of the population. With a exponential rate of conversion, the country remained largely Catholic until the Danish King, Christian III (r.1537-1559) gained control and implemented the Reformation, approved by the parliament in 1541. The Lutheran faith remains the dominant faith in Iceland. As of 2017, the population of Iceland is Lutheran in majority, but a number of other faiths, including the pagan Nordic faith of Aastru, are growing in numbers. The students were keen to investigate the design of faith groups outside of their spectrum of understanding, and recognized the challenges of designing for such small populations of followers in Iceland.

In the fourth week of the semester, the studio group and I spent one full week in Iceland. The three-fold focus of the trip was to document the site and elements of landscape; visit and document key buildings; and research and follow up with local architects and/or local faith groups. While in Iceland the students measured and documented a large site for the project, located on the western edge of the city, in Seltjarnarnes, sloping down to Faza Bay of the North Atlantic, facing the Acranes mountains. Site analysis is a fundamental step in the process of design, the opportunity to visit a site affords many levels of primary research through direct analysis. Before the visit to Iceland the students analyzed available maps and studies of the site and area and identified questions and areas in need of clarification. This was the only collaborative assignment in the term and the students worked together to document the site and shared all materials.

As a group a number of key buildings were documented first hand, which allowed for primary research through direct lessons of form and design as well as phenomenological perceptions and interpretations. The landscapes of eastern and southern Iceland were studied including a number of notable waterfalls with the influential basalt geological formations, which reinforced the understanding of the impact of the form and material. Students independently contacted and visited local places of faith gathering related to their research, and some were able to meet with local architects who are currently working on the design of buildings related to the students’ research.

Site section through Buddhist temple design

Site section through Buddhist temple design by student Anastasia Renaud.


Throughout the remainder of the term the students collaborated to consolidate all research findings from the field visit to Iceland including creating a digital and physical model of the site as well as information on the case study buildings. However, before launching into orthographic design drawings or even programmatic diagrammatic studies the students were asked to consider the volume of information gathered both on the site and through the research of the faith group of study through vignette studies. As an approach to design, the students first sketched vignettes of key spaces they imagined on the site. The use of multi-media encouraged students to collage in photos of views on the site (such as the ocean and mountains). By this point in the semester the students had already designed their liturgical furniture or the element of a wall system based on 3-D geometric studies; they could collage these elements into the vignettes or reimagine them. Many students used this as an opportunity to test out actual or simulated qualities of various building materials. Each student was asked to create a minimum of five vignettes, including studies of the main worship space. In small groups of three or four they presented to each other for informal discussions and critiques, and then reworked the vignettes until it was clear to each student the qualities of the sacred space being designed.

Liturgical object mode of a plaster and dye chair

Liturgical object model at 1:2 scale of a plaster and dye chair for a Hindu temple feet-washing station design by student Sahana Dharmaraj. Photo courtesy of Shannon McMillan.

There was some skepticism about this process as it was counter to their previous experiences of immediate plan-centred programmatic studies and design development. However, the two-week vignette exercises led to greater confidence in the process and in individual design positions. Following this exercise the students were asked to design their building in section only, leaving the plan aside (counter to their previous experiences). The sectional drawings focussed on varied roof heights and designs, material use, lighting, sequence of spaces, as well as furniture and movement. These sectional studies resulted in stronger articulation of the qualities and varied sequences of the spaces in architectonic terms that both underscored the specific rituals as well as reinforced the continuing dialogue of phenomenological consideration of experiences in the spaces. Only after several iterations of the sections were students encouraged to draw the plans for their buildings. Essentially, this final portion of the design process was the shortest, as much of the qualitative and spatial issues had already been resolved.

For the final critique of the semester, students presented their designs for a sacred space utilizing tools developed throughout the term, including the site model and small-scale model of the building, larger model studies of the building, details and furniture, continued vignette studies of the spaces, as well as orthographic drawings of the building and site. In addition to this, students collated all of the research and studies of the entire semester into a self-published book, which was presented at the final critique to aid the external critics in their review of the projects. The book functioned as a repository of the students’ research and work throughout the term, but more importantly it was a tool for the students to familiarize themselves with respect to ordered methodology and presentation, a valuable experience in preparing their independent research for their master’s thesis.


Interior rendering of Buddhist temple

Interior rendering of Buddhist temple design by student Anastasia Renaud.

The ambitions of the graduate studio course were multi-fold and broad, and by focussing on a typology of architecture not commonly approached in architecture schools. Through the research and design of a sacred space, the students were exposed to content not previously engaged in studio work in their undergraduate studies. The content focus on the sacred was paired with the methodological focus on research of various types including: literature review and research, drawing and modeling, primary site research, case studies and design. However, in future iterations of this graduate course, I will most probably streamline the work so that more time can be spent on the particularly effective exercises such as the study of fewer buildings in Iceland and the focus further on the development of vignettes and sections and less on the geometric exercises. The sustained consideration of the spatial qualities of sacred spaces as well as the relationship of contemporary architectural design to liturgical ritual afforded a rich complexity of both research and design for the students to engage with. The students were keen to investigate qualities of sacred spaces of faith groups either unfamiliar to themselves or to re-evaluate their previous engagement and understanding through the research and design process.

  1. Bachelor of Architectural Studies (BAS), a four-year pre-professional program required for entry into the two-year professional degree of Master of Architecture (M. Arch).
  2. In their undergraduate studies these students have designed and built an ice fishing station, a canoe, kiosks, and a portable sauna.
  3. Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
  4. Juhani Pallasmaa “Light, Silence, and Spirituality in Architecture and Art” in Transcending Architecture: Contemporary Views on Sacred Design. Bermudez, Julio. Ed. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015.
  5. “Brief History of Catholic Church in Iceland,” Dioecesis Reykiavikensis.
  6. The total population of Iceland was 338,349 in 2017. Of this, 75.7 percent belonged to the Lutheran faith, 6 percent professed no faith, 3.8 percent were Roman Catholic, 1 percent followed the Aastru faith, 0.3 percent were Buddhist, 0.2 percent were Muslim, 0.1 percent were Baha’i. The remaining 12.9 percent belong to a large number of other faith denominations and sects. See Statistics Iceland, 2017.
  7. The majority of the 12 students in this study chose to study religions they had little or no understanding of: All-Faith, Anglican, Aastru (Nordic Paganism), Baha’i, Buddhism, Catholicism, Hinduism, and Taoism.

One of the founding faculty of the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada, the author is documenting Canadian mosques in the first extensive study of its kind, supported by a grant from the Federal Government of Canada.