Avenues to the Holy

Volume 45, Issue 4

As I browse this year’s winners of the Faith & Form / IFRAA international awards program I recall the words of the German expressionist architect, Erich Mendelsohn. Writing in Commentary in 1947, Mendelsohn observed, “It has been said that religious structures must be ‘traditional’ in order to impart a sense of the sacred, that the dignity and emotional significance of such buildings can only be expressed through historical associations. To admit this is to deny that religion is an important part of our contemporary society.” Mendelsohn’s work underscored this claim: he and other post-World War II architects designed modern places of worship sensitive to emerging liturgical practices.

The Faith & Form / IFRAA awards program is a helpful instrument in gauging trends in the world of religious art and architecture. Among this year’s winners there is a wide range of beauty, color, airiness, illumination, verticality, simplicity, ornateness, and functionality. Each one has been judged to be a worthy place or artifact whose end purpose is to serve some religious purpose. Whether for public worship, personal devotion, or the burial of loved ones, the examples depicted in this issue tell us that creativity and imagination are still the tools of good designers.

Architects, religious leaders, and congregants today do not agree on what architectural or artistic design is appropriate for the worship of God. The discourse is shaped by scrutiny: how well do architecture and the arts energize a connection with the holy other? Looking at these awards it would be futile to make an evaluation. One specific conundrum for designers has to do with learning which techniques and methods are best for creating a sacred space. Innumerable publications and conferences continue to address this topic. Religious camps armed with words like “immanence” and “transcendence” continue to debate which style is more appropriate for engaging with an ineffable supreme being.

I believe it almost impossible for anyone to design a place that is automatically, by virtue of the design process, a sacred space. Instead, it makes sense to me to say that places become sacred over time because of the events that occur there, because of relationships created there, because of the stories and memories that take root there. The ritual activities of the users (who act alone or collectively) give acute meaning to an ordinary place designed to allow for the possibility of a sacred encounter. The ability to discover something or someone extraordinary in a built environment suggests that the building needs to be a timeless tabula rasa allowing each generation to inscribe its own narrative.

This is why the award winners shown in this journal represent such a diverse palette of religious art and architecture. There are simply too many avenues that can lead to the discovery of the holy that it cannot, by virtue of its own definition, be circumscribed.

And then there is what could be the “last word.” Recent studies tell us that 34 percent of the US population of persons under the age of 30 are not affiliated with any religion. These “nones” are spiritual; they pray, they believe in God, and they are not looking to join a religion. I wonder what they might think of these award winners.

The writer is a liturgical designer and also a member of the Faith & Form Board of Advisors