Inquiry: Architecture as a Metaphor of Sacred Space

Credit: Landscape and Church, Wassily Kandinsky, Artist

by LJ Frank

 Sacred space is a space that is transparent to transcendence, and everything within such space furnishes a base for meditation…When you enter through the door, everything within that space is symbolic, the whole world is mythologized ~ Joseph Campbell


The Metaphor

The allegorical nature of the church’s architecture was remarkable with a spiritual feeling not lost to the visitor. The effect of the design was one where once you entered, it was as if you were a participant in an ageless metaphor connecting the person with the feeling of the numinous – the Idea of The Holy (Das Heilige) of which the theologian, Rudolph Otto wrote. For, the numinous is something that eludes conceptual analysis and which an inspired architect can only hint at in her or his imagination and subsequent physical drawing and articulated in the process of constructing.

I had visited this sacred space a few times over the years located not far from a university. I love architecture and certain designs beckon one’s curiosity. This small ecclesiastical structure was built to serve those who had no other place to go in a society that filtered its social constructs, theologies, and philosophies of life. It became a sanctuary for the human heart, giving credence to the search for meaning in its physical form.

I understood how and why such a sacred dwelling was fashioned as a metaphor for the cathedral of the human soul – the pragmatic purpose being sharing thoughts, music, song, and pastoral rituals. The rituals were flavored with words of minor consequence for such words were more for the speaker than the listener. You see the depths of the sanctuary’s graceful and poetic existence was when no voices or musical notes sounded. The silence of contemplation fashioned out of stone, wood, glass, and natural lighting, surrounded by a lush garden ….to fulfill the human spiritual want of sacred space for reflection. In that quiet one could feel a speechless presence that the architect acknowledged in its creation.

Buildings, no matter how culturally significant or impactful on people and society as a whole cost money to maintain. And one day it was determined by a board of directors that insufficient profit warranted it be torn down, less than three decades after it was built. The board responsible for the sacred space, with their formidable business degrees and personal financial expertise and success sought a more profitable venue for the land upon which the sacred dwelling of the numinous occupied and to outsource the metaphor.

As a building program consultant  I understood the reasoning… yet I also understand metaphors and the allegories of the human heart, soul, and spirit. The need for sacred space with its multi-layered interpretations and physical translations.

The metaphor, a synonym for the idea of the Holy, was now a antonym, for an unsustainable symbol. A decision was manufactured.  As part of their roles there was the appropriate shaking of heads as they ventured to the bank to count their coins.  

The property was repurposed as part of a grand plan voted on by those who never participated in the uplifting of the human soul’s transient journey on earth. How shall we redefine sacred in the future as the laborers sweat whose hands constructed the Holy? And though I do not belong to any religious faith, rather I’m an intellectual libertine, I felt a disarming pain for those now without their sacred space for even in silence the empty church instilled the deepest reflection of humanity…a place where the soul could find a spiritual meaning beyond any religion.

The human search for meaning both ancient and modern has been to create symbolic space for the heart’s most haunting yearnings. And I question, what happens to that human heart when a piece of their life’s memory is torn down and replaced with a parking lot and a warehouse?

Nothing is truly independent. Just as no wave is independent of another wave in the ocean, so all life in all places of the world is connected. Everything washes up against another. Every building and every room and every space we shape, in turn affects who we become.

And I suppose the mundane in certain instances can become sublime, but such instances are mostly found in nature or a special place one carves out somewhere in one’s life.

To create a sacred space out of broken cement, splintered wood and shattered glass achieves a temporary sacred quality when weeds and wildflowers grow between and over the rubble to form a natural covering…but still, it’s an ambiguous landscape of what once was a gracious and imaginative metaphor for individual spiritual healing.