Examining Sacred Spaces
One of the most exciting events of this academic year has been the ISM conference Sacred Space: Architecture for Worship in the 21st Century, October 25-26. It was offered in conjunction with the international symposium Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture presented by the Yale School of Architecture with support from the ISM and the Divinity School. The first event focused on identifiably Christian buildings, while the second embraced temples, mosques, synagogues, memorial structures and the like.
In an era of cultural, political, and ethical transition, we thought that a conscious reflection on sacred space would offer individuals and societies in a post-modern and post-religious age new possibilities for charting their futures by drawing upon their pasts. The scholars and architects, who represented a wide range of opinions and aesthetic, interpreted the complex ways in which sacred space continues to captivate a changing world. Karla Britton and I were the prime movers behind the two academic events.
The conference held in the ISM Great Hall opened with a look at church architecture in the twentieth century by Prof. Louis Nelson of the University of Virginia. Sometimes nostalgic, sometimes whimsical, the churches of the last century said a lot about American popular culture and civic values, as well as changing worship styles. Medieval revival buildings or megachurch stadiums are part and parcel of our religious landscape in a time of transition, which was a theme repeated by Rev. Richard Vosko, a well-known liturgical design who addressed ecclesiology as an underlying rationale. What we think of ourselves as Church, in many ways determines what and how we build.
Professor Emeritus John Cook then led a panel of academic and pastoral leaders on the topic of the renovation of existing structures, continuing in the line of various ecclesiologies. Prof. Gretchen Buggeln of Valparaiso University, Rev. Richard Giles, rector of the Episcopal Cathedral of Philadelphia, and Rev. Arnold Thomas of the Riverside Church spoke about the inadequacy of certain spaces, and the need to adapt, rebuild, reconfigure, and rethink liturgical space and contemporary worship. Following a reception for participants and registrants, the first day culminated in the keynote address, with the Rev. Dr. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral inspiring a full house in Marquand Chapel and urging those present to consider “biorealism” – the application of the insights of the biological and behavioral sciences to architecture – as a vital aspect of any future church building project. He entertained us with anecdotes of his sometimes stormy cooperation with three world-class architects: Richard Neutra, Philip Johnson, and Richard Meier. [His talk can be heard, and excerpts seen, on the ISM website.]
The following day saw the participants move downtown to the new St. Thomas More Catholic Center, a multi-purpose building designed by Cesar Pelli. It also saw the participants move their focus from the United States to Europe. Friedhelm Mennekes, SJ, pastor of Sankt Peter and Project Kunstation in Cologne, delightfully scandalized the audience with the suggestion that contemporary sacred space has to be empty space – that is, it needs to ask questions and allow doubts to clear the way to recognize in emptiness the presence of the Divine. His presentation startled us to move beyond comfortable pews and cozy nostalgic places to radically review what Christians should be doing in worship in an age of technology, disbelief and religious violence.
The three architects who then presented their work had a hard act to follow. Michael Crosbie, chair of the department of architecture at the University of Hartford and editor of Faith & Form, led a group of professionals with vastly different aesthetics. Joan Soranno of the firm of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson is the designer for the award-winning Bigelow Chapel of the United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, MN, with its unique curved wooden light filters. Duncan Stroik, chair of the School of Architecture of the University of Notre Dame, is one of the country’s best-known neoclassicists and advocate for traditional church architecture. In contrast, Victor Trahan, head of his own firm in Louisiana, represents the minimalist aesthetic with an award-winning chapel in poured concrete. [For photos of their work see back issues of Faith & Form at www.faithandform.com and Sacred Architecture at www.sacredarchitecture.org]. We are happy to say that the conference’s principal papers will be published in the next volume of Colloquium.
The collaboration with the Yale School of Architecture represents a new partnership at Yale and one more reason to be proud of the interdisciplinary nature of the ISM. Together with the Constructing the Ineffable symposium which followed, it has helped to put the ISM on the international map as a premier place for the serious study of sacred architecture.