Soulful and Social

Volume 51, Issue 3 :: Edited by Michael J. Crosbie

The shifting borders between sacred place and secular space

This issue’s theme is an exploration of the connections, overlaps, and opportunities between sacred places and the communities in which they live. Such an appraisal demands that we examine how we define a sacred place, and what makes it different from the larger community beyond its walls. It calls into question the very nature of a boundary between the sacred and the civic, or whether there really needs to be any dissimilarity at all. Permeability appears to be the new condition of these sacred/secular boundaries. How can these new community spaces be soulful and social simultaneously? This roundtable presents perspectives on the borders of the sacred and the civic, how these demarcations are changing, how faith groups are reaching out to form bonds with the community, and reaffirming, clarifying, or challenging the definition of sacred space.


Beyond the Sacred and the Profane

The Golden Summit by Thomas Barrie AIA

The Golden Summit is part of a sacred geography of mountains, temples, monasteries, Tai-chi ch’an academies, and pilgrimage paths at Wudang Mountain in  the west-central Hubei Province in China. For centuries pilgrims have paid respects to a syncretic pantheon of immortals, folk gods, sages, emperors, and Buddhist bodhisattvas. Watercolor by Thomas Barrie, AIA.

Religious architecture and sacred places have rarely been unified, singular locales. Instead, they are typically complex and heterogeneous, where boundaries between the sacred and secular were blurred or indistinct. In his book, Space and Place, the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan observes that religion either embeds a people in a specific place, or frees them from it. The religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith is suspicious of any fixed concepts regarding sacred places and, in To Take Place: Toward a Theory in Ritual, argues that the sacred is more often sought beyond the confines of place and priesthood.

In many indigenous cultures, clear distinctions between the sacred and the profane are rare. Ritual settings are generally autonomous, with only periodic needs for specific spaces. Sacred geographies include both natural and built environments. Many encompass vast areas, often determined according to cosmogonic models and linked by pilgrimage paths. The Navaho of the American Southwest consider the Four Corners region to be an integrated landscape of landmarks significant to their mythical histories. Similarly, Taoism includes a sacred geography that stretches across China and identifies Five Sacred Peaks, 10 major and 36 “cavern heavens,” and 72 “blessed lands,” all believed to be interlinked.

For many, a sacred place doesn’t necessarily need to be a defined place, or be consecrated by architecture at all. Devout Muslims mostly pray independent of the mosque. Domestic spaces can also serve spiritual practices, such the shrines for daily pujas in some Hindu homes. Many Protestant denominations focus more on scripture and personal beliefs than on architecture. Most explicitly, there is the phenomena of placeless televangelism, and voluminous evangelical churches that evidence little interest in architecture beyond its seating and theatrical capacity.

Understanding religious architecture, especially in an increasingly heterogeneous and globalized world, demands complementary approaches to the still-dominant distinction between the sacred and the profane.

~ Thomas Barrie, AIA
The author of House and Home: Cultural Contexts, Ontological Roles (Routledge, 2017) and other books, the writer is also a professor of architecture and North Carolina State University.


Congregation Beit Simchat Torah

The bright, transparent, and inviting entry to the new Congregation Beit Simchat Torah synagogue establishes a landmark in its community. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella/Esto

Planting a Synagogue in a Neighborhood

The history and mission of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) in New York City made it imperative that the architecture of its new home reflect both the institution’s role at the forefront of gay rights advocacy and the congregation itself, a proud, radically traditional and inclusive group that was an important part of its wider New York community. At the time I started working on the design, CBST’s current home, which dated from shortly after its founding in 1973, was difficult to find, only accessible through a courtyard at the end of a ramp. That disjoined configuration made the synagogue feel hidden. The congregants I interviewed consistently spoke of the need for their new synagogue to have a strong, visible presence within the neighborhood—to be out, proud, and open to all. Yet they also spoke of the deep need for a sanctuary within the city, a space where individuals could worship safely, both alone and as a community, in a world that is not fully accepting.

The search for a building to house the new synagogue yielded a landmarked, Cass Gilbert-designed building with 50 feet of storefront. The symbolism of this street-front location was powerful, asserting CBST’s presence on the street and transparently reflecting its motto of being “open to all.” With a new façade—a composition of lit signage spelling out Congregation Beit Simchat Torah with vertical gold pinstripes and lavender glass–the architecture embodied CBST’s radical traditionalism, revealing a modern, active institution within a historic, landmarked setting. Away from public eyes, the sanctuary—whose only connection to the outside is through a skylight that washes daylight along a fluted concrete wall—is a soulful space for private worship.

The new synagogue embraces the neighboring community, making its presence known. The view from the street into CBST’s offices lets the world see that those within are working for social justice every day. Yet this embrace is balanced by the sanctuary, which is purposely removed from the city. The introspective and extroverted together define and strengthen the synagogue as a whole.

~ Stephen Cassell, AIA
The author is a founding principal of Architecture Research Office based in New York, New York. CBST was a winner in the 2017 Faith & Form/IFRAA Awards program.


Moving Images of Sacred Space

Frequently, claims to the “sacredness” of a place, especially a contested site like the Hopewell-era Earthworks of Newark, Ohio, are predicated on the supposed permanence and immutability of that status. Outraged by the continued presence of a golf course built over the 2,000-year-old geometrical mounds in 1910, indignant Indians assert that because this was in the past a traditional sacred site, that it remains in the present—and ought to be in the future—the sort of exceptional place that is exempted from recreation, greens fees, and chemical fertilizers. Once sacred, always sacred.

More often, the sacredness of places is temporary, fluid, and permeable—a dynamism that reveals itself in processions and ambulations of every scale and complexity. For instance, there is the modest and moving image of a devotee approaching the Mexican pilgrimage site, Sanctuary of Chalma, on his knees, accompanied by an assistant who carries two tiny carpets to cushion this journey of genuflection. The pair uses a leapfrog-like system, wherein each time a two-by-four-foot rug is rolled out in front of the pilgrim it claims a new eight square feet of sacred space; each time a rug is rolled up behind him, the same small patch of the city is returned to the profane.

A similar dynamic unfolds in larger and more communal ways in the annual Holy Week procession in Oaxaca, Mexico, in which the image of Our Lady of Solitude, patroness of the city, is carried five blocks from her Basilica to the main cathedral. The two Catholic church endpoints are permanent sacred spaces, but in-between what was moments before a car-filled thoroughfare is swiftly transformed into an inviolable processional way. And then, just as quickly, after the Virgin and her devotees pass by, the temporarily sacrosanct street is returned to the quotidian.

Or at yet a larger scale, in countless Mexican villages such as Mitla, Oaxaca, in the days before Easter, residents lash palm fronds to lampposts and build temporary Stations of the Cross at various intersections. For a few hours on Good Friday the entire municipality becomes an outdoor sanctuary in which villagers together retrace the steps of Jesus until, before nightfall, the impromptu Via Dolorosa dissolves back into the once-again prosaic townscape.
Claims to the permanence and immutability of sacred space are viable and important religio-political positions. But, upon closer inspection, such assertions are difficult to sustain as the actual fact of the matter.

~ Lindsay Jones
The author of several books and a professor emeritus at Ohio State University, Lindsay Jones is the editor-in-chief of the second edition of Mircea Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion.


The New Meaning of Sacred Space

Traditionally, most spatial practices of sacredness require limit and partition, with a parallel social practice of hierarchy and ritual. However, a profound and continuing revolution challenges inherited patterns between the sacred and profane, requiring the boundaries so often determined and defined by adepts and initiates to stretch and jostle with new realities of community and meaning-making. While the reality of sacred places as exclusive and restricted has become diffuse and permeable, most sacred environments are still differentiated from the secular environment around them. From design and style to their original purpose and contemporary meaning, many sacred spaces continue to be different in important and unexpected ways.

Across the country, communities of faith are living through profound changes by re-defining the notion of sacred place away from the inherited concept of physical separation from the mundane and the everyday. Instead they embrace a vital difference that continues to make them unique but proximate to the many patterns of daily life and culture lived out by the diverse stakeholders of the communities surrounding sacred places. With new partnerships between churches and a variety of community uses — from performing arts, to health, and entrepreneurship, and more — sacred places prove that they do not have to be off-limits although they are different. Difference, in this new outlook, is outlined in contrast with the spaces around us that engender increasingly narrow affinities, drawing individuals into tighter and more homogenous groupings. Sacred places, however, offer few of the “catholic” or universal spaces for connection and engagement across background, culture, belief, and discipline in our time. This new model of sacredness is emerging in faith communities responding to the need for a new relationship with the growing secular world.

Use drives design and sorts architectural typologies throughout the built environment. Religious use for worship was paramount. But today these kinds of uses, which were traditionally central for religious property, now often represent the smallest portion of use within the building. These architectural landmarks have become community hubs for thousands of uses beyond those traditionally tied to religious identity. The thriving sacred places of today and tomorrow are open to myriad and evolving kinds of gathering, creativity, and endeavor. This inclusion, long an aspiration of faith communities, is becoming the new meaning of sacred place, turning sacred inside out in order to sustain its future.

~ Joshua Thomas Castaño
The author is director of Community Engagement Services for Partners for Sacred Places.


Community and Sanctuary – Defining Sacred Space

Eli M Black Lifelong Learning Center

The chapel at Park Avenue Synagogue’s Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center, designed by Murphy Burnham & Buttrick. Photo: Frank Oudeman

Throwing open the doors of a house of worship lets the sacred spill out into the community, yet the opposite happens, too. As congregations engage their communities, their places of worship risk their own secularization. What, then, does sacred space mean in this context? The answer involves the delineation of sacred space from everything else, and the language of sacredness itself.

Setting aside the familiar spectrum of solutions – a sanctuary used for no purpose but worship, or the meetinghouse model where community is recognized as sacred unto itself – we should delve into the contested territories that characterize many houses of worship. How does a sanctuary feel like a sanctuary if it also serves support group meetings and youth group dodgeball, parenting classes, and performing arts? How does a sanctuary feel like a sanctuary to congregations of different faiths that share worship space?

One architectural element provides an adaptable solution: the threshold. Thresholds are designed to be crossed. Distinct from barriers, they are in fact always part of a passage. Importantly, they signal a change — the moment between there and here. From the sidewalk outside to the sanctuary within, focusing on meaningful thresholds can make a sacred space feel both permeable yet distinct.

Formal manifestations of sacred thresholds are familiar (the dais, the bimah, the altar) as are elements marking a space within a space (baldachins and mandaps), but there are subtler variants as well. Changes in proportion, lighting, materials, and acoustics and can all signal a transition from the temporal to the sublime.
But how is a space identified as sacred? All faiths have visual cues to connote sacredness in architecture. Each has specific iconography or implements of worship; some are universal. Verticality, a point of focus, richness of material, an elevated plane — these architectural qualities communicate solemnity and dignity in ways that adapt across the faith spectrum, while remaining accessible to secular communities.

By communicating sacredness in universal terms and by allowing a permeable delineation of sacred space, congregations can preserve and strengthen their identities as sacred places while building a closer synergy between liturgical and pastoral mission.

~ Taylor Aikin, AIA
The author is an associate and senior project architect with Murphy Burnham & Buttrick (MBB) Architects in New York and worked on the recent restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.


Housing the Homeless as a Sacred Duty

Big Box Conversion

Site design of conversion of big-box store into a homeless shelter production facility, supported by a local church in Minnesota, which will include factory floor, common house facilities, offices, and worship areas, with homeless shelter units set up in parking lot.

We often associate the word sacred with divinity and the holy, but it also signifies dedication to a purpose, security against violation, and immunity from interference – all meanings that convey the important role that sacred space has long played as a haven from a harsh world. In medieval Europe (where chaos reigned in many places) churches, convents, and monasteries offered a place for people to seek safety, security, and a higher and more holy purpose. That same role exists today: to provide a refuge for the homeless, who have no other place to go, who remain among the most vulnerable to violence and violation as they live on the streets, with little or no protection from the police. In some cities, churches and temples are the only places allowed to provide homeless shelters, but in a few cases that sacred purpose goes even further.

A doctoral student in housing studies at the University of Minnesota, Gabrielle Clowdus, has worked with the leadership of a major church here to provide a safe space – a sacred place – for the homeless and to create a productive community in partnership with this population. The church occupies a former big-box store and owns a 72,000-square-foot space and adjacent parking lot that it has offered to a new non-profit organization called “Settled,” which Clowdus started. Settled leverages the skills of many homeless people to produce tiny homes and other products that those living on the streets might need.

Rather than have a modern employer/employee relationship, this non-profit follows a model more common in the medieval period, where people contribute to the community whatever skills and talents they have, co-creating the products of their labor and cooperatively operating the organization. Settled will cycle the revenue generated by the sale of its products back into the community, while allowing the homeless to live in the production center or in the tiny homes they produce in the adjacent parking lot.

This effort reflects an important new role for sacred space. Religious institutions have protection, through the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), from “unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations.” RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, allows such institutions to shelter the homeless population and engage in a mission-related activity like homeless housing that exclusionary zoning regulations often prohibit. RLUIPA offers a secular solution to sacred communities seeking to address a secular problem. The law also helps religious communities to remember the broad meaning of the word “sacred,” which refers to a space of solace and security, dedicated to a higher purpose, and immune from interference (including that from hostile members of the public and elected officials who pay no heed to the homeless in their communities). Settled reminds us that we shouldn’t settle for anything less than that.

~ Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA
A professor in the School of Architecture and Director of the Minnesota Design Center
at the University of Minnesota, the author serves on this journal’s editorial advisory board.


Permeability in Liturgical Space

St. Augustine's Episcopal Church Washington DC

The sanctuary of MTFA Architecture-designed St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, which hovers over its Washington, D.C. neighborhood, is visually permeable and open to the city. Photo: Anice Hoachlander

For a space to be sacred, does it have to be secluded, cloistered, or visually inaccessible? For centuries, sacred architecture–from medieval cathedrals to contemporary black box theaters–has created an interior focus through heavy or mysteriously opaque physical structures. This historical expression of sacred space can provide a sanctuary from the world, but it may also reinforce an experience of separation rather than integration. As communities become more diverse, even the most inspiring and beautiful sacred structures can seem disconnected from their physical and social environments. This physical separation may unintentionally reinforce an inward focus on the part of the worshipping community as well as create an unwelcoming image in the eye of the neighbor, to the detriment of both.

Instead, in a layering of physical, narrative, and symbolic landscapes, permeability can create an opportunity for communities of faith to extend their experience into the surrounding environment and invite new ways of seeing. Rather than simply managing light, framing a great view, or creating a well-placed window, approaching visual exchange as an aesthetic means of communication can be a powerful way of creating new insight, shared experience, and profound connection. This porous exchange of meaning provides a foretaste of sacred experience, and even hope.

St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. and the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church in Maryland offer a visible exchange that both informs the liturgical environment and also reaches out to the wider context. At St. Augustine’s, framing the liturgical space within a view of the city creates a single scene in which each sphere enriches the other. The juxtaposition engages the imagination and magnifies the possibilities for the integration of spiritual experience and physical landscapes. At Chevy Chase Presbyterian, a frameless glass door and transom offer transparency and open the stone building for dialogue with those who pass by. Through an intentional dematerialization of the building envelope, the poetic language of permeable space breaks down the barriers that define it by gathering together a mutually informed and potentially transformative landscape.

~ Michael T. Foster, FAIA, and David Friend, AIA
The authors are with MTFA Architecture in Arlington, Virginia, specializing in design and strategic consulting for faith-based communities and liturgical spaces, and educational buildings.