An area of interest for me (as a non-architect) is the place of physical space, scale, boundaries, symmetries, contrast, ambiguity, shape, gradients, texture, simplicity, connectedness…etc and our encountering of God. What kinds of architecture create “thin spaces” – holy places, spaces that serve as doorways into the transcendent, spaces that draw us into the Trinitarian union, spaces that silence and still us in the presence of God?
I often wonder what we are saying about God, ourselves, and Christianity more generally as I reflect on the architecture of church buildings, particularly the more recent trend toward using warehouses, bland, boring, textureless, functional structures. I wonder about the relationship between architecture, colour, artistry etc. and faith development; between architecture and narrow, black and white views of Christianity, and those which are wider, deeper, and oftentimes richer…It strikes me as interesting to think about it.
Architect Christopher Alexander believes that structure (i.e. architecture and construction) can work against human wholeness and spirituality. Angus Stocking writing about this notion (in relation to Alexander) says “…After all, how many people leave nature to get ‘back to the city’ when seeking peace and enlightenment? There are, of course, exceptions. Beautiful gardens or soaring cathedrals can become engines of transcendence. But these are exceptions that prove the rule; generally speaking
With those kinds of thoughts in mind, and a great appreciation for the work of Philip Sheldrake, I was drawn into Father Tom McElligott’s paper, An Architectural Reflection on Sandra Schneiders and Philip Sheldrake’s Understanding of Christian Spirituality –
“…Attention to reality and the built environment has as a consequence to make one conscious of the presence of God in all things, to use the Ignatian phrase of awareness of the divine. Wherever one is at any one time in any particular space one’s awareness of the divine-human encounter and its consequence can increase, if [Christopher] Alexander is correct, by paying attention to the “life”, the “wholeness” present where we are, by continually asking of any place, or any space, or any object, “does it have more life or less life; how is it a picture of my deepest self? The architecture around us, architecture in the broad sense of the space in which a building or other object is to be constructed, and architecture in the sense of a building and how it comes to “life” provides the place for both transformative Christian experience…”
Further, in his lecture McElligott, commenting on Alexander’s architectural concept of wholeness, says “…We notice the degree of life present anywhere by continually asking what degree of life is present here as opposed to there. How can I make this place more reflect the wholeness, or enhance the wholeness, the reality already present?”
Good question. What he’s getting at is being present to what is before us, being open and attentive to life; to what is and to what is becoming – to what is both whole and I’d suggest what is becoming whole. Now, imagine with me: If that already “wholeness” is our being created in the image of God (imago dei) then in that sense we are all “whole” at a fundamental level. Now we know from experience that we aren’t whole, but in Jesus Christ, we are becoming whole; becoming what we were created to be (imago dei).
So, what we are looking for in our encounters with others (for example in spiritual direction) is the signs of God at work; of God bringing wholeness, of God restoring and rennovating. As McElligott suggests, we are “noticing,” we are accompanying what is actually here and now, i.e. we are present to where a person actually is, not where we want them to be. We’re always asking “to what degree is life present; to what degree is God the creator, sustainer, and re-newer of life present and active…?
Two interesting articles, Christopher Alexander, Genius of Space and Life, the Nature of Order, and Everything can be found here and here respectively. Alexander has some very significant things to say.