A while ago I was talking to someone about designing a Buddhist temple. I began to think about the subject of sacred spaces: their configuration, their meaning, and most importantly, how people use those spaces to give their religious practice meaning. I realized that designing sacred space is a pretty unique endeavor. And given the nature of commissions these days, the chances that people are unfamiliar with a particular religion is pretty high.
So here’s a hypothetical for you: imagine someone unfamiliar with Christianity has been commissioned to adaptively re-use, say, a building for a Catholic church (L.A is full of such storefront churches). And this person has discovered from an online source that of central importance is the altar and the altar table. But, if that person is not a practitioner, it’s possible that s/he might think, given the limitations of the pre-existing structure, that the altar could be placed in one corner and the altar table in another.
Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Well, something similar was proposed for this Buddhist temple: the altar was placed to the side of the North-South axis. But you can’t place Buddha off to the side. Placing a Chinese Buddhist altar along the North-South axis is of paramount importance. This was, in essence, a big cultural mistake
Now as many of you will justifiably protest, “How in the world am I supposed to know that?” Well, obviously you aren’t. You look things up: “Hey, I’ll just look it up on Wikipedia.” Weellll, yeah, there’s that. Of course, it’s content isn’t always accurate. The same goes for blogs. But, if you’ve got a critically analytical mind, you can hopefully sort through the chaff.
But there’s a bigger problem. Websites are made for short attention spans. They’re filled with blurbs that flatten the importance of the subject matter. In short, everything, or nothing is important: everything is equally important. Elements can easily become dislocated and decontextualized. In this case, the meaning of the altar is lost within a jigsaw of seemingly equally important, competing elements. But in sacred spaces, not everything is equally important.
Plus, people in western countries use the Buddha as decoration. Really, how can you take the Buddha as a serious religious icon when restaurants and gardens are adorned with Buddhas? For comparison, Mohammed, Jesus and Mary are universally recognized as sacred icons, not secular decoration.
Here’s the thing: designing sacred spaces is about designing for a culture. And there are spatial strategies which must be used in order to invest both the space and the relic it contains (in this case, that would be a ritually “animated” Buddhist icon) with power*1. So designing sacred space is unique. And not like “Well, hospitals are unique,” because those kinds of projects are unique for purely practical reasons. In sacred spaces, programmatic elements represent a culture and derive their symbolic and practical meaning from a specific context. Program is not merely a series of free-flowing pieces whose configuration can be determined in practical, spatial terms alone. The days are gone when donors could hand-pick some architect because s/he knows how to design the most powerful and spiritually effective space possible*2. So the quality of information is key. That means blogs are probably not a great resource. And while they may be dry, lots of academics make their work freely available these days, And for designing sacred space, it might not be a bad idea to look them up.
*1: Bernard Faure, “Relics and Flesh Bodies: the Creation of Ch’an Pilgrimage Sites, in Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China, eds. Susan Naquin and Chün-fang Yü (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992): 150. *2: Andrzej Piotrowski, “Architecture and the Iconoclastic Controversy, in Medieval practices of Space, eds. Barbara A. Hanawalt and Michal Kobialka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000): 101-3.