Material Gateways

Volume 51, Issue 1

Judith Dupré

Judith Dupré

Recently, I’ve plugged into a new app, “Deep Time Walk,” while on my morning perambulations. Developed by ecologist Stephan Harding and others, the app walk is 4.6-kilometers-long, just under three miles, representing 4.6 billion years of the Earth’s history. Every footstep marks 500,000 years, igniting an appreciation of just how ancient the world is. At 400 steps, iron and nickel, the heavy metals, form Earth’s core. A quarter-mile more and the oceans surge. Rock that will eventually be ground into sand (and eons later made into concrete) follows. Humans emerge at the very end, during the last 200,000 years. Even a short walk provides a glimpse of the eternal and the understanding that the Earth and her fruits are not external to ourselves but are, as Harding says, “our wider body—a great, living being, inside which we live symbiotically.”

Church builders have always known that structures have an emotional resonance and identity beyond their physical dimensions, however impressive or technically advanced. While the outer shell has relevance as a visual landmark and a practical means of sheltering worship, the “what” of construction is arguably more significant to the churchgoer than the “how.” A church’s materiality marks the place where the individual touches the structure, making a physical connection that opens a gateway to the ineffable.

Materials matter. Natural materials—metal, stone, wood, among them—can bridge the physical and metaphysical, illuminating the realm that exists between the outward signs of religion and the soul. The charism of materiality includes the material itself, as well as the process of shaping it. Much like faith, mastering materials requires time, repetition, and the willingness to hear what the material wants, rather than imposing one’s will. Typically, makers aren’t known by name, possessing a collective rather than an individualistic sensibility that echoes the bonds that knit together a community of believers.

One can pull an historical thread through the traditions of any given material. Concrete’s storied lineage, for instance, can be traced from Rome’s 2nd-century Pantheon, with its unprecedented unreinforced concrete dome, to Álvaro Siza’s Church of Saint Jacques de la Lande in northwestern France, which opened this year. In Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright exploited concrete at Unity Temple to express both the sanctuary’s strength and the vulnerability of its interior where questioning, a hallmark of Unitarianism, takes place. The Church on the Water in Hokkaido, Japan, features Tadao Ando’s signature concrete, with a finish as smooth and luxuriant as silk. Ando said that he wanted to arrive at the place where “it is impossible to ask any other questions.” That intent is also apparent at Peter Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, built in a meadow outside of Cologne by local farmers. Its charred, cast-concrete interior walls recreate the primal cave and a time of more ancient gods.

Reverence was once expressed by building to great heights or by employing only the most costly materials. That’s changed, especially as environmental resources are increasingly stressed. Sacred spaces that highlight the use of natural materials offer prescient commentary on how luxury will be defined in the not-too-distant future. Such materials, rendered to reveal their intrinsic beauty, cause us to reconsider what is truly precious and rare. They invite us newcomers to this old planet to step outside of time and enter the timelessness of the holy.

The author writes about architecture’s physical and ethical dimensions, and serves on the Faith & Form editorial advisory board.