Sacred Presence in Architecture and Landscape

Volume 49, Issue 1 :: By Michael J. Crosbie

An Interview with Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe


The architecture of Toronto-based firm Shim-Sutcliffe Architects connects landscape with architecture, probing the spiritual dimensions of both. Partners Brigitte Shim, Hon. FAIA, and Howard Sutcliffe, Hon. FAIA, who are also married to each other, talk about their award-winning architecture and the role of landscape design and the presence of nature as elements that evoke the sacred.

Michael J. Crosbie: Let’s start at the beginning, with your first project, the Garden Pavilion in Toronto. How does it continue to influence you?

Brigitte Shim: It’s interesting to think about our first project having many of the issues that we still think about many years later. This project had no doors, no windows, the only mechanical system was for a pump. We looked at the scale of landscape, the scale of the built form, the scale of the furniture, light fixtures, the bridges. We thought about the horizon line, the role of retaining walls.

Howard Sutcliffe: Retrospectively it became the DNA for a lot of things we are still working on. As a sacred condition, I grew up in nature, hiking and climbing. How do you make something as incredible as nature, manmade, in this sacred environment? Whether nature is godly or sacred is another question. But there is a respect for nature. The walls are essentially ruins, transitional conditions between nature and building. It’s been embraced by nature, engaged by the site.

BS: I think it’s a place of contemplation. Weddings have taken place here. It is a significant moment in the city. Toronto is a city of river valleys and ravines, so to be perched over the city with a panoramic view is a very special place. The selection of materials was very important, such as concrete, which is worked and marked and chipped away to express its holding the earth back. The rusting steel is part of the natural process of aging, compared to the wood, which has its own lifespan.

HS: The idea of building time into the project is important. It is embracing the project, and how materials change over time. It acknowledges the fact that materials weather.

MJC: And over time one comes to visit this place, and its weathering has an existential message for the visitor. What is the evolution of the importance of landscape in your work?

BS: Many of the same issues are revisited in many sites and programs.

HS: Most of our projects have landscape/garden metaphors, urban or rural, sacred or secular. Many people have said many of our secular spaces feel sacred, even in a house. Light for us is fundamental in these works.

Section of Congregation Bet Ha’am shows how natural light is introduced into the sanctuary.

Section of Congregation Bet Ha’am shows how natural light is introduced into the sanctuary.

MJC: Temple Bet Ha’am in Portland, Maine, which won a 2013 Faith & Form/IFRAA Award, is a very good example of that.

HS: The idea of light bringing materials to life is fundamental to what architects do. It’s different than using artificial light. It is a bit like water in that way—suddenly there is life in that project. There’s a presence. Water and light is part of our material palette.

BS: Bet Ha’am started with a flat roof. As the project went into fund raising we were also working on a small studio/garage. It was a simple space but we learned a lot from it, about how to capture light. We came back to the synagogue and suggested a shaped ceiling to redirect the light with baffles, clerestories, and skylights. In this sacred space, the same group that gathered on Friday evening for service would come back on Saturday. On Friday they would bow to the sunset, and on Saturday morning they faced the other direction. It’s an asymmetrical section that responds to the time of the year and the location of the sun. We turned the interior clapboard upside down so the thicker edges capture lines of light instead of casting shadows—to make the light palpable. At the end of the sacred space is a garden, with water coming down a scupper. Nature is part of the experience of this sacred space. The congregation embraced it from the beginning, they wanted to be part of nature, experiencing the seasons, which connected to the type of liturgy they read.

HS: The little model of the studio we designed showed us how the light comes into the space, creating thick walls of light. You don’t need a lot of light in there to create that effect, but the light has substance to it.

BS: Small projects can teach you things. The lessons of small projects can inform larger projects. They are quick, can be designed and built quickly, and what we learn can be applied in other projects.

MJC: For the Chapel of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto, a 2014 Faith & Form/IFRAA Award-winning project, the presence of nature was an important part of the design, wasn’t it?

HS: It was fundamental to the sisters that this sacred space have a direct relationship with nature. They saw God and the presence of nature as the same thing. The space folds in on itself, with a curved glazed wall that imbeds nature into the space. That was a fundamental condition, to make that work, instead of just looking out at nature.

MJC: The folded curve in the glass is the sacred presence of nature coming in.

BS: You are bringing nature in. You are in harmony with it.

MJC: The exterior of the chapel appears as a floating pavilion, embraced by nature.

BS: After one of the first services, the priest said that as he moved from behind the altar to stand in front of it, he could see the ravine and the neighborhood at the same time. You could embrace both. The building occupies a zone between the landscape and the city; in this long, thin building you could always see nature in relation to the city. The second floor is also part of this embrace, for the infirm sisters, who had to sit way in back of the previous chapel. Now they are on the second floor mezzanine overlooking the space and are part of it. It is both intimate and expansive. There was a ravine restoration plan, because before this project was built it was a dumping ground, uncared for. Part of the project was to heal the ravine. It was a journey of taking something under-valued and making nature a focal point of the sacred experience.

MJC: At St. Catherine’s Chapel at Massey College in the University of Toronto, you created a feeling of being under trees. It feels very primal.

HS: It is in a basement, but we found ways to create the illusion of daylight. The chapel was part of the original building designed by Ron Thom and we were asked to renovate it. The walls were covered with red-painted pebbles, and the arches were plaster. It was grotto-like. The blue wall is spatial, it suggests the sky. It’s very strong and animates the space. The icon on that wall was donated by author Robertson Davies, the first Master of Massey College.

BS: It was part of the history of the college, an existing space that was revitalized. We cladded the plaster arches in white oak, with integrated lighting, and a new slate floor over what had been red asbestos tile.

MJC: The Wong Dai Sin Temple, which is part of the global variety of cultures in Toronto, seems very sensitively sited in its suburban neighborhood.

HS: It’s a pretty quirky, varied area, an odd location, with suburban houses around it and a shopping center just down at the corner. They bought a suburban house they thought they would renovate into a temple with parking in the back.

BS: The neighbors went ballistic. Close-by is a large Buddhist temple, a mosque, and a synagogue. So when any of these groups gather, there are cars parked all over that spill out onto the suburban residential roads. The by-laws regarding parking in these neighborhoods are very rigid to protect the residents. The only way this would work was to raise the building up so you could park underneath it, with a cantilever in both directions instead of columns. We showed them a model of the building and they said, “whip horse”—a tai chi move. Daoism is one of the oldest religions in the world, connecting the physical, tai chi, to the spiritual. The neighbors were resistant, but we got a very positive planning report because of our sustainable site strategy, not impacting anyone’s view. The upper room is a memorial hall that had originally been planned for tai chi, but they shifted the program. We turned the rectilinear skylights into round ones, and included wire-brushed cedar paneling to give it a sense of age. The concrete floor accommodates the incense. Now, they use the space outside under the cantilever for tai chi.

MJC: Tell me about the Corten steel on the temple. It is so rich in its relationship with nature.

HS: We have used Corten right from the beginning of our work. It registers the act of weathering, it has an emphatic material quality. In most of our projects we have used wood and Corten because they are rich and textural. It’s the antithesis of an aluminum and glass curtain wall system, because that is machine made and the human condition is removed, you have no relationship to it.

BS: The Corten, especially at Wong Dai, becomes an abstract landscape in itself.

MJC: Let’s compare that project to Atherley, which is for a faith tradition that you don’t have first-hand experience with. How do you approach a project such as this?

HS: We cover a range of projects in different faith traditions that we don’t know first-hand, outside the Anglican, Catholic traditions. We seem to attract these projects.

BS: The sacred place at Atherley is based on plentitude, on gathering in nature. Our client is the Mjinkaning Fish Fence Circle Group. There is a cluster of sticks in the water that has been there for 5,000 years, located at the narrows between two lakes. This is where First Nations people gathered the fish, in order to hold them, so they would be plentiful for sacred occasions. We work with Chippewas, who see themselves as stewards of these fishing weirs. But the weirs themselves are under water; you can’t see them. Our project is to design a pedestrian and snowmobile bridge across the waters that will connect both sides, and the bridge has to represent something you will never see. There is a sacred space that allows a place for gathering and drumming. Under the bridge is an interpretive center. We just received our environmental assessment, so it is poised to go forward. But it will take a long time. For the First Nations it’s about a sacred landscape, not just a sacred space. The connection to the water is fundamental.

MJC: How amazing to work on a project that is 5,000 years old that you can’t see.

BS: That’s what the discipline of architecture allows you to do: enter these worlds—those of Catholic nuns, reformed synagogues, Daoism, First Nations—that you would know nothing about, especially with spiritual space. You have to enter them so completely to tap into who they are and what they value, and what matters to them.

HS: To make it meaningful to them, you have to synthesize. Each project has to be its own world.

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