Numen Lumen

Volume 47, Issue 2 :: By Howard Hebel, AIA; Photographs by Robert Benson

Pushing the multifaith model forward

The new Numen Lumen Pavilion at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, responds comprehensively to a relatively new demand on the architecture of religious experience: to serve multiple faiths collectively.

Face of Numen Lumen as it faces the academic village of the campus.

Face of Numen Lumen as it faces the academic village of the campus.

Since before recorded history, transcendent places have nurtured and inspired religious communities, one faith at a time. Today’s U.S. cultural landscape presents architects with a new opportunity to influence religious experience. The spectrum of religions practicing in this “melting-pot” amid unaffiliated “seekers” fosters new openness to exploring enduring questions collaboratively, with tremendous potential to help reduce conflict stemming from intolerance. Architects can stimulate this ferment by designing places for celebrating humanity’s religious diversity holistically, helping both the faithful and the faithless to share a search for meaning and purpose.

Numen Lumen presents a significant step in the evolution of a new prototype for such places. While designed for higher education, its principles apply broadly. Like other recent campus religious buildings, it confirms that multifaith facilities can promote multicultural literacy, engendering mutual understanding and respect. It also suggests new ways in which multifaith centers can encourage collaboration and can catalyze innovation in humanity’s quest to understand its existence and live in peace.

Paradigm Shift

The multifaith model embodied by Numen Lumen evolved from the previous “nondenominational” or “interfaith” model developed over the preceding half century. That model responded to demands to serve growing religious diversity with chapels at nonreligious facilities, including schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, and transit centers, as well as outdoor facilities such as cemeteries and parks. It reflected the artistic abstraction, philosophical Existentialism, and religious ecumenism and liturgical experimentation of its cultural context.

Sacred Space in the Pavilion’s rounded element and north entrance face toward campus and town.

Sacred Space in the Pavilion’s rounded element and north entrance face toward campus and town.

The nondenominational model’s innovations included new building forms (drawn from emerging abstract architecture to avoid reference to traditional religious building types), freedom from religion-specific iconographies, and simple furnishings and fixtures. The best of the resulting buildings—such as Eero Saarinen’s iconic MIT Chapel of 1955, with its unifying cylindrical form and inspiring cascade of light over Harry Bertoia’s glittering wall sculpture—offered inspiring new places for people of different faiths to share. Many variations on the basic approach appeared over the intervening years.

Multidenominational clusters of separate religious spaces under one roof, such as SOM’s dramatic Air Force Academy Chapel of 1962, provide a small number of traditional spaces at each site (only Christian and Jewish spaces at the Academy until recently), with inherent lack of interaction due to the separation. Metadenominational facilities, like Roger Anger’s multifaceted 1968 Matrimandir for India’s Auroville community, provide uniquely shaped spaces suited best for nontraditional (or non-Western) activities.

Postdenominational (or transdenominational) facilities created by modifying existing Christian churches, such as Yale Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel, replacing fixed pews with loose furnishings and open floors and removing some iconographic constructions, nevertheless often retain recognizable building forms, area specializations, room orientations, and built-in iconographies that inhibit use by some faiths.

Outdoor facilities, for example Lloyd Wright’s transparent 1951 Wayfarer’s Chapel in California, embrace the beauty of natural settings as their architecture. Whether fully open-air or glass-enclosed, though, many feature fixed seating, area specializations, fixed orientations, and recognizable iconographies that inhibit use by some faiths.

Facilities resulting from use of this nondenominational model struggle to support traditional religious activities owing to their inherent limitations including: lack of spaces suited for traditional religious activities, lack of traditional iconographies or liturgical furnishings, interference with key liturgical activities by physical obstacles, and lack of support facilities. These deficiencies leave many faiths unable to use these facilities for activities essential to their spiritual lives and communities, reducing them to participating in activities there only after completing traditional activities in their home facilities.

The multifaith model arose in response to shortcomings that left the nondenominational model ill equipped to meet the needs of contemporary multifaith programs, and particularly limited its ability to serve growing Islamic and non-Abrahamic congregations. As currently constituted, this new model welcomes all religions equally. It complies with design and liturgical requirements of all participating religions, accommodating their program requirements for liturgical, social, and cultural activities, and providing spaces that uplift and inspire without recourse to traditional religious iconography. A key difference between this new model and its predecessor is its embrace of traditional religious activities and its commitment to providing staff and pedagogical and support facilities for them—an observed prerequisite for bringing congregations to these facilities for sufficient time to develop the intended vibrant, diverse educational and spiritual communities.

Wellesley College’s Student MultiFaith Center provided an early application of this new model, developed by then Chaplain Victor Kazanjian and architect Steve Kieran and reported in this journal (“Design from Dialogue,” Faith & Form, Vol. 42, 2009, No. 3). While their thoughtful work advanced the model, the project scope was limited by the footprint of Wellesley’s Christian chapel, in the former basement, which was charged to fit the new facility. In spite of needing to prioritize, their mix of small spaces for individual prayer and meditation, educational spaces, offices for programming staff, and support spaces gave the model its fullest expression to date.

The New Model at Elon

When Elon University committed to developing its own multifaith religious center, it enlisted Kazanjian’s assistance during programming to learn from Wellesley’s lessons and to advance the model further, this time devoting an entire new building to implementing it without preexisting physical limitations.

Elon’s multifaith vision grew from its mission to create “an academic community that transforms mind, body, and spirit … preparing students to be global citizens and informed leaders motivated by concern for the common good [with] respect for human differences.” Elon’s commitment to addressing cultural conflict, given added urgency by the events of 9/11, crystalized in an initiative to build a new kind of facility and program to tap the power of humanity’s shared search for meaning and purpose. Former Chaplain Richard McBride, who long shepherded this vision, observes: “One has only to read the newspaper or your iPad to see how much religious intolerance still exists in the world, how much fear and mistrust and hatred emanate when religion has gone bad … yet the longing to lead a meaningful life resides in everyone.” As Elon’s President Leo Lambert declared at the dedication, “It is here in the Numen Lumen Pavilion that we will plant the seed for peace and understanding and prepare our students at Elon to be forces for good in the world.”

From the beginning, Elon also sought to bring town and campus congregations together in a shared place of reflection and inspiration, not to replace existing facilities for individual religions but to complement them. The new center would welcome all to practice in the presence of each other and to gather as a greater community. As alumni donor Edna Truitt Noiles notes, “We wanted to make it possible to find new ways of talking and living with people of all faiths, a place that is porous, a place where the world can come to pose its questions and share its own challenging knowledge … not governed by age or profession … perhaps a new kind of religious life where no questions are off limits for people who are not quite sure what they think of religion but want to offer themselves in service.”

A preparatory review of previously built facilities revealed needed refinements that the new model still lacked. A highly successful facility would require active, invested, user constituencies. Design should position scholarly and practical approaches to complement each other. Primary spaces should be very flexible, and their portable religious icons would merit honorific accommodation when not in use. The facility would require a holistic complement of support spaces, including ample storage for the logistics of space flexibility. It would also need a diverse, energetic, on-site staff. After studying the program and visiting prototype facilities, the project team framed a broad array of objectives that expanded the model to meet Elon’s needs:

Programmatic: Welcome the religious, unaffiliated seekers, and nonbelievers equally (starting with the Abrahamic religions, and adding others through a multiyear plan) from campus and town. Promote the study and practice of religion synergistically. Engender understanding and tolerance among religions, and between religious and nonreligious. Stimulate collaboration and innovation in the search.

Curricular: Position the practice and study of religious experience as a fourth modality of inquiry, understanding, and expression to complement the humanities, arts, and sciences.

Institutional: Equip Elon University for thought leadership at the national level in multifaith exploration.

Campus: Complete a master-planned “Academic Village” quadrangle by building its final pavilion.

Building: Adapt the preestablished neo-Jeffersonian exterior architecture and building form of the quad-pavilion prototype (developed earlier by Spillman Farmer Architects) to accommodate the multifaith program and create an iconic campus landmark to draw town-and-gown users.

This holistic framework prompted Elon to adopt its University motto, “Numen Lumen” (union of spiritual and intellectual lights) as the facility name, symbolizing its welcome of traditional religious practice and scholarly activity together as a mutually illuminating basis for encouraging collaboration and innovation among users.

An Architectural/Spiritual Journey

Sacred Space

The Sacred Space is a primal shape, with views out toward campus and the town beyond.

Newman Architects’ design parti of an architectural journey suggesting a spiritual journey demonstrates how forms employed to implement this program can enhance its operational and symbolic effectiveness.

At Numen Lumen, the program spaces are arranged within the prototype pavilion’s form, adopting its portico as portal and shifting overflowing program away from the courtyard to feature the sacred space as campus pivot and landmark, invoking Jefferson’s “Temple of Knowledge.”

Once inside, the lobby signals departure from campus and world, setting a scene of primal wonder at existence amid nature, with a water wall suggesting a trickling stream and a luminous ceiling suggesting a forest canopy above. A four-post framework evokes primitive shelters and ceremonial structures like the Jewish Sukkah, while its luminous ceiling echoes Islamic patterns.

From here, a choice between pathways to practical activities on the first floor and intellectual activities above symbolizes two routes to understanding that users discover rejoin as they both arrive at the Sacred Space, itself a play on timeless sacred-space forms employed by all religions. Double-loaded corridors maximize spontaneous seeker interaction along both routes.

Along the way, pedagogical spaces and resident faculty energize the study of religion. The flexible Sacred Space supports many modes of religious practice, both separately and in tandem with the multi-use social hall to which it opens, complemented by smaller spaces for individual devotion and reflection. The sacred space’s balconies provide observation platforms as well as multilevel activity venues, encouraging the study of practice and the practice of study. The social hall sustains this human community and provides an additional primary venue. Altogether, this synergistic mix creates a religious-studies learning laboratory.

At the center’s heart, the portable-icon storage represents a new take on this model component, a highly visible, honorific display celebrating the icons’ importance and beauty. Its prominent location along the main pathway positions the icons to educate and inspire when not in liturgical use.

Numen Lumen’s materiality and process illustrate other opportunities for adding meaning that arise in the course of implementation. Wood, stone, water, and natural light draw on universal iconographies of life, strength, purity, and divinity. The limestone in the Sacred Space, quarried in Jerusalem, connects to ancient Abrahamic origins. Locally sourced water-wall stone, and benches made of wood from trees cut to clear the site, keynote a LEED Silver Certified sustainable design. All along, a public-information program punctuated by participatory ground-breaking, topping-out, and dedication ceremonies engaged town and gown communities and built user interest.

Promising Indications

Multipurpose room

Multipurpose room opens to the Sacred Space for combined use.

Two years of use reveal that Numen Lumen’s program and design are proving effective in gathering a multifaith community and energizing interfaith interaction. Traditional devotional and social uses, as well as multifaith information “fairs,” campus gatherings, and other nontraditional uses demonstrate suitability for a wide variety of activities and acceptance by multiple congregations. A growing list of activities attests to the effectiveness of its staff and programs, and to the vitality of its growing community. Subsequent transformation of the weekly “college chapel” activity into a new multifaith gathering called “Numen Lumen” promises more collaboration and innovation to come. Plans call for expanding study-abroad opportunities, piloting a multifaith leadership program, and inaugurating the Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society.

At Elon, the expanded multifaith model succeeds at both institutional and human levels, providing a setting for innovative programs. Most of all, it promotes the essential interpersonal engagement imagined in Chaplain Janet Fuller’s dedicatory wish: “May the friendships forged here transform us into our best selves, grow us in respect, and, through us, change the world.”


Primary Activity:
  • Sacred Space
  • Multi-use/Social Hall
Support Facilities:
  • Icon Storage/Display
  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Ablutions
  • Classroom
  • Library
  • Study
  • Work
  • Lounge
  • Offices
  • Kitchen and Pantry
  • Bathrooms
  • Storage
Exterior and Site:
  • Prominent Entrance Portals
  • Key Components as Landmarks
  • Indoor-Outdoor Connections
  • Meditation Garden
(not included at Numen Lumen)
  • Sacristy
  • Kosher and Halal Kitchens and Pantries
  • Shoe Storage
  • Music Practice
  • Multi-media

Owner: Elon University; Design Architect: Newman Architects; Architect of Record: Spillman Farmer Architects; Multifaith Advisor: Rev. Victor Kazanjian, Executive Director, United Religions Initiative; Liturgical Consultant: Dr. Serene Jones, President, Union Theological Seminary


Numen Lumen project director Howard Hebel concentrates on buildings for higher education at Newman Architects, while exploring the architecture of religion as a personal passion.