Shared Universe, Sacred Story

Volume 51, Issue 1 :: Roberto Chiotti and Michael Nicholas-Schmidt

How materials pave the way for sustainable sacred space.

Tree stump

Tree stump found on the site of the Loretto Christian Life Centre became an important part of the design. Photo: Larkin Architect Limited

Despite the many advances in design technology, from orthographic representation to BIM software, the creation of space is still the act of a maker selecting and organizing materials. And while intellectual analysis may augment our senses, people must still inhabit spaces with their bodies. The sensory experiences of materiality and the associations they evoke remain a fundamental language of architecture.

The explosion of contemporary materials available to the designer provides a wide palette in the design of the sacred environment. It has not been our practice to ascribe any one particular material with the inherent dignity or the power to evoke the sacred. Rather it is an approach that reflects the nature and history of the material in order to reveal its natural beauty. The raw building blocks of creation are the same tools with which we construct experiences of the sacred. Grounded in a love of creation, the designer’s interaction with the material becomes a chance to evoke in the user experiences of the Creator. These conversations between maker and material, and between material and user, constellate a greater understanding of and connectedness to the “unseen order.” The designer, in conversation with natural materials, has an opportunity to articulate a unique vision of humankind’s relationship with creation and the Creator.

But to achieve this, the material voice must first be heard, understood, and then respectfully engaged by the designer. For example, when commissioned to re-design the chapel at Loretto Christian Life Centre, we first spent a lot of time wandering the site, coming to observe and learn from both its geological context immediately adjacent to the Horseshoe Falls, and its historical context, as one of the first missions for the Loretto Sisters after arriving in Toronto from Ireland in 1847. The structure is built of local limestone, embedded with the fossilized remains of the million-year-old primordial sea creatures that literally served as the molecular building blocks of this noble material chosen by the builders for its strength and durability. Elsewhere, in the garden where their foundress Mother Theresa Dease is buried, we discovered the remains of a 150-year-old felled tree. The stump, stubbornly rooted to the earth, appeared fecund even in death, a gaping hole in its midriff—the vestigial evidence of a large branch that had rotted and extricated itself long ago. This decidedly feminine form established for us the theme of the renovation: to transform a patriarchal, inwardly focused chapel that had turned its back on the falls into a sacred space that reflected the sacred place, the sacred mission, and the sacred memory of the sisters who had taught generations of young students on this site.

Interior of the redesigned Loretto Centre chapel

Interior of the redesigned Loretto Centre chapel, which incorporates tree stumps. Photo: David Drake

Materiality is inevitability linked to place and time. The forces of creation and inhabitation leave their mark, lending unique colors, textures, and patterns. These distinctive features connect us with the processes that shape our lives and our planet. Materials become mnemonic of the revelatory experiences of creation. The material experience is therefore not just sensory. The colors, textures, and patterns we experience connect us with the memory of our natural condition. The beauty inherent in the landscape, whether a walk through the woods, or a mountaintop vista, is there too in the material, albeit shaped and manufactured through human agency. These memories shape our experiences of the material.

In our practice of architecture we have sought an ever-deepening awareness of the inherent gifts of the materials we use, and their power to connect us with the sacred. The fundamental elements of our landscape – stone, wood, and light – continue to reappear in our work and help us articulate the sacred. The enormous variety of sources for stone and wood, combined with the myriad of manufacturing processes which cut, shape, refine, and finish the raw material provide much inspiration. Often, however, it is the careful decision to pause, and leave a space empty, which connects us best to the divine. Light, or the careful arrangement of the absence of material, also has a myriad of modes and qualities.

Exposed foundation stone in Church of Our Lady

Newly exposed foundation stone in Church of Our Lady expresses the interaction of human hand and hard stone, an element of creation. Photo: Shai Gil


Stone is perhaps the material most associated with the sacred. Practically, it has always been a material reserved for significant structures. The complexity of removing it from the earth, the challenge of transporting it to the building site, and the logistics of stacking it high in the air mean that the use of stone suggests a super human effort. Its durability exceeds human life spans, allowing it to remain for generations. These qualities of endeavor and permanence remain significant experiences of the sacred.

Tyndall stone incorporating fossil evidence

Tyndall stone incorporates fossil evidence in the surface. Photo: Larkin Architect Limited

Some stones are formed in an instant by the immense heat and pressure that force the molten core of our planet up to the surface, allowing it to cool. Others are formed over generations as layer upon layer of material is stacked and compressed. Some rocks are formed by the incredible metamorphic properties of heat and pressure that transform them. Caught up in the midst of these incredible processes are the comparably feeble organic structures that become immortalized in the traces and impressions of fossils.

The stone selected for the finish of the narthex of St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish reveals these processes. Comprised of a dolomitic limestone quarried near Tyndall Manitoba, Canada, from whence its name is derived, it came into being some 450 million years ago during the late-Ordovician Period when a great inland sea occupied much of North America. Tyndall stone is cream-colored with a pervasive mottling of darker dolomite formed by unknown burrowing organisms and is also characterized by larger embedded fossilized remains of sea snails, mollusks, cuttlefish, trilobites, corals, and other primordial sea creatures. Its presence as a building material for a church dedicated to the eco-theology of Passionist Father Thomas Berry grounds our Christian story within the larger geological narrative of the Earth’s evolution, reminding us that revelation comes to us from both scripture and God’s creation.

The further process of extracting the stone from the earth and transforming it into a practical building material requires an immense amount of time and energy to shape and finish the blocks appropriately. Stone not meant to be exposed was left in a rougher state to conserve time and energy as compared to the intricate processes necessary to further shape, carve, and smooth finished pieces. In the basement of the Church of Our Lady, the stone foundation was left as a utilitarian material used to support the church above, hidden beneath layers of less expensive wood lathe and plaster added to give it a finished appearance. During the restoration and renovation of the church and basement hall, our prescribed mandate was to restore and repaint the moisture-damaged plaster in an effort to return a finished look to the social spaces. Material testing revealed that moisture inherent in the stone was going to continue to cause deterioration of the plaster finish. Consequently, a decision was made to remove the plaster and expose the rough stone finish. This solution facilitated the “drying” out of the stone while providing the most cost‑effective and durable finish. Serendipitously, the utilitarian tooling and shaping of the stone lent a powerful experience of the sacred to the new spaces. It is perhaps that exposed interaction between the human hand, and the hard stone, which revealed something of creation. The tool marks, pitted surface, and imperfections connect us with the frailty of the human experience in sharp contrast to the enduring permanence of the geological.

The wood groin vaults of Holy Spirit Parish

The wood groin vaults of Holy Spirit Parish suggest the canopy of the forest. Photo: Shai Gil


Wood can evoke the sacred, particularly in North America. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, it is alleged that a squirrel could travel from coast to coast amongst the tree tops without ever having to touch the ground. The soaring vaults of high Gothic cathedrals have been compared to a forest canopy of ancient trees, and vice versa. For North Americans the warm tones of wood evoke a sense of warmth, home, and safety. Much of our built environment has been constructed of wood and today wood remains a ubiquitous building material, considered even more important from a sustainable perspective as a rapidly renewable resource and for its ability to sequester carbon.

When it came to the design of a new church for the Holy Spirit Parish in Barrie, Ontario, “Simple Gothic” was the term the building committee chose to best describe a contemporary worship facility with a traditional look and feel that drew its inspiration from a rich history of Gothic church design while also embracing a modern aesthetic and palette. In response to this imperative, we looked to wood as the natural material of choice. Using glue-laminated timbers sculpted to recall groin-vaulted Gothic cathedrals, the wooden ceiling at Holy Spirit embraces the congregation with a warm canopy, recalling the grandeur and dignity of the West Coast Boreal forests.

Cosmic-colored light in St. Gabriel’s Church

Cosmic-colored light in St. Gabriel’s Church helps to orient it to the sun. Photo: Martin Knowles


When asked by his own community to suggest an appropriate material response for the design of a new church for St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish, Fr. Thomas Berry replied with this simple question: “How will you address the sun?” In this instance, the intentional desire to work with light as a material became the focus of the design. In contrast to most churches that are inwardly focused and employ stained glass to create an otherworldly liturgical environment, the entire south façade of the worship space at St. Gabriel’s is glazed with clear glass. This has been done in order to passively harness the winter sun’s energy and to extend the sacred space of the worship area into the sacred space of the world beyond, emphasizing that when we gather to worship, we do so within the greater context of creation; a primary revelatory experience of the divine. The remaining three walls of exposed architectural concrete serve as a constantly changing canvas for the dynamic play of sunlight that is filtered by artist David Pearl’s colored glass panels of the continuous perimeter skylight and further fractured by wall-mounted dichroic-coated reflectors. In effect, the cosmos is invited to give shape to the worship environment and participate in the ritual action of the liturgy. Similarly, time also takes on a cosmic dimension as the sun appears to traverse the sky above. Seasonal influences on the sun’s intensity and inclination together with the daily diversity of weather conditions ensure that no two masses experience an identical liturgical environment.

Movement from the south to the north is reinforced by the colors of the skylight. Brilliant yellows are situated closest to the sun’s intense light at the south end whereas the deeper, richly hued azure blues and crimson reds at the north end provide a beautifully mysterious and meditative light for the chapel of reservation and the adjacent reconciliation room. The ceiling of the worship space stops short of the walls on all sides, appearing to hover weightlessly over the congregation, the cosmic colored light of the perimeter skylights spilling into their midst from an unseen source high above.

Incorporating these and other sustainable design strategies contributes to an understanding of early scriptural teachings that emphasized the sacredness of all creation and not just the sacredness of humankind. As sacred space, St. Gabriel’s presents a “Gestalt whole,” and like the medieval cathedrals of Europe becomes itself a form of Catechesis, engaging the senses and inviting transformation.

This engagement with materiality leads to a desire to act sustainably in its use. We must consider the life-cycle impact of the buildings we create and the materials we use. The selection of recycled or rapidly renewable materials will naturally lower the ecological impact of the construction process. Greater awareness is needed of the embodied energy in certain materials as a result of the manufacturing, transportation, and installation processes. Over their lifecycle, the off-gassing of materials, maintenance requirements, and durability can all contribute to the equation of responsible use. Finally, at the end of a material’s life, we consider its ability to be recycled, reused, or broken down into its component parts to be more easily re-purposed and extend its useful life expectancy. The complexities of sustainability are immense, but all of the above concerns are grounded in a love of the materials themselves and a respectful reverence for their unique essence. If we recognize our relationship with materials then we will use them responsibly.

Every engagement provides an opportunity for the design to bring intentionality, ingenuity, and creativity in service to illuminating the intrinsic beauty and value of the material. Such an exploration gives tangible, meaningful expression to our love and respect for creation. It articulates our unique role as humans in the cosmos, co-creators that share the same molecules as the very materials we fashion. Through a loving process of design and fabrication, we interact with materials to articulate and celebrate our shared universe story, our shared sacred story.

Co-authors Roberto Chiotti, principal, and Michael Nicholas-Schmidt, senior associate, practice with Larkin Architect Limited, dedicated to the design of sustainable sacred space.