On Silence

Volume 47, Issue 2

In beginning the design of a place of worship, many architects value analysis but distrust intuition. They have been taught the Modernist dogma that design is an objective, problem-solving process in which the client’s program of functional requirements is absolute. However, analytical thinking and problem solving alone are inadequate for the creation of a work of religious architecture that evokes in us a sense of awe or that is capable of resonating with our deepest joy, sadness, fear, love, or longing.

Architecture that has the power to touch the heart comes from somewhere else, the place Louis Kahn called “Silence.” By Silence, Kahn did not mean “very, very quiet.” Silence is the source of creativity, “the desire to be, to express.” Entering into Silence requires that analysis be set aside in favor of an intuitive search for “what the building wants to be.” Design consists of the transformation of “Silence into Light,” Kahn’s term for the material manifestation of the desire to be. Design entails many twists and turns in which an idea that originates in Silence may first be expressed as Light in the form of a preliminary sketch. If the drawing fails to convey the spirit of the original idea, it is necessary to return to Silence for additional insight. Thus design involves a series of transitions from Silence to Light and from Light to Silence. Kahn taught that after a great building is completed, Silence is present once more.

Silence is sensed in great works of religious art and architecture. It is often most powerfully felt in space, not in mass, and in what is implied but not revealed, as in the kapporeth, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant, where a void framed by two golden cherubim represented the unseen presence of Yahweh. Anyone who has felt overwhelmed in the shadowed vastness of Chartres Cathedral or who has gazed in wonder at a shaft of sunlight slicing across the dome of the Pantheon has known Silence. It can be encountered in the ruins of certain ancient Greek temples, where one can sometimes sense a numinous “something there,” described by William James. At Stonehenge on the lonely, windswept Salisbury plain, one feels it–what Kahn described as “the beginning of architecture.” It is not “made out of a handbook,” and does not start from practical issues, but “from a kind of feeling that there must be a world within a world.”

Kahn believed that in order to encounter Silence, it was necessary for the architect to forget the client’s program and abandon all preconceptions. “The first thing to do is to throw away the program,” he said, arguing that the program for a new building is usually little more than a list of areas copied from previous buildings and fails to reflect its underlying, essential nature. The architect who thinks of the program as a prescription to be filled fails in the higher duty to translate areas into spaces that inspire human thoughts, feelings, and activities.

Kahn challenged much of what architects have been taught about the “process” of design. Analysis and problem solving do have their place. But the architect of worship spaces that touch the heart must first be willing to rely on intuition rather than analysis, entering into Silence, the source of the desire to be.

The author is a professor of architecture at the University of Memphis and the winner of the 2014 AIA/ IFRAA Edward S. Frey Award. He was a student of Louis Kahn.