Modern multicultural cities still need spiritual sanctuaries accessible to all. Architects can best provide these by focusing on enhancing people’s lives rather than so-called iconic buildings.
ity-making is more than a matter of planning and design. It also concerns the deepest values and sources of meaning by which people try to live. This is a city’s spiritual dimension – its ‘soul’.
The global future of cities is a critical spiritual as well as social and architectural issue for our times because urban environments are where, for most people, life is either enhanced or diminished. Attempts to address the complexities of contemporary cities need more than a mechanical approach. The challenge is how we relate city-making to a vision of the human spirit and what enhances it.
Cities enable or disable a sense of place – a category of human experience with a strong impact on how we situate ourselves within the world. At a basic level, environment shapes the human spirit. Yet understandings of the human spirit also shape the environments we build. If cities are to reinforce a belief that human life is sacred rather than merely an organic phenomenon, their design must embrace every dimension of existence.
Are we building into cities what is precious to us? Cities have always been powerful symbols of how we understand community. Yet post-war urban design evoked neither the value of individual people nor a common life. Instead it spoke the language of size and power. Modernist ‘design rationalism’ also divided cities into zones for living, working, leisure and shopping and thus fragmented the rituals of daily life.
In broader terms, this division into separate zones reflected a kind of flight of the sacred from cities. There was no longer a centred, let alone spiritually centred, meaning in the city. Cities became commodities, parcelled up into multiple activities matched by multiple identities for the inhabitants. Overall, cellular design undermined a unified sense of existence and bypassed shared places of encounter. Domestic ghettos were increasingly protected against sterile public spaces that were treated unimaginatively or abandoned to violence and vandalism. Such design still dominates too many British urban areas.
Modernist ‘design rationalism’ divided cities into zones for living, working, leisure and shopping, fragmenting the rituals of daily life
In past centuries, city landscapes were given focus by the ‘sacred spaces’ of churches, particularly cathedrals. Apart from being places for worship, these buildings operated spiritually on several levels. They countered a purely functional reading of the city by evoking a kind of metaphysical environment, offering a treasury of spiritual meaning and acting as symbols in stone of the ideals of a city. Cathedral architecture was designed as a representation of the cosmos, intended to evoke a peaceable oneness between divine creator and creatures. This was a utopian space where an idealised heavenly harmony was materialised in the here and now through a variety of artistic codes. Such spaces were intended to transport the pilgrim into a transcendent realm through a subtle combination of open spaces and mysterious thresholds, intimacy and vastness, not to mention the flooding of space with light through the dematerialisation of walls with glass.
The great city churches also provided spaces for public gathering and for markets, and were storehouses for the cumulative memory of the city both structurally through monuments and more subtly through an atmosphere engendered by generations of visitors. Even today, on entering such buildings we engage with centuries of human pain and achievements, and these ‘memory palaces’ are constant reminders that the very act of remembering is vital to a coherent sense of identity. Such urban icons also offer communion with something A
A deeper than an ordered civic life. In other words, the great churches deliberately address ‘the condition of the world’.
However, there was also a clear sense of a wider sacred landscape in the city itself. This was marked by a range of religious shrines that can still be seen in ancient city streets in Catholic countries. The sense that the city itself was sacred was reinforced by street rituals – feast-day pageants, mystery plays and processions. The heavenly Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation, Chapter 21, even became a planning model. Thus the 1339 Statutes of Florence emphasised the sacred number of 12 gates although by then the city had 15. This was a world where people could accept sacred and mundane in the same spaces – market stalls inside churches and shrines in the streets.
In our very different world, it is important to consider how urban designs reinforce a sense that the contemporary British city may also be sacred to its inhabitants. Growing numbers of people sense there is a ‘spiritual deficit’ not met by conventional political and planning agendas. An interesting question is whether there is a significant role for sacred spaces in today’s radically plural, multicultural city. If so, what makes a contemporary sacred space, how do such spaces function and what might be their role?
Galleries contain powerful symbols of a community’s creativity, aspirations, and quest for self-transcendence
Much depends on how we understand the sacred. The classic meaning is ‘the holy’ which, whether we understand it as supernatural or not, implies ‘embracing the whole’. The sacred stands for what is complete rather than partial or flawed. So, sacred spaces may both provoke a sense of what we lack yet evoke possibility and hope. They can also assist the re-enchantment of urban existence and liberate people from a sense of fundamental estrangement.
Interestingly, recent European surveys suggest that historic religious buildings not only continue to play a symbolic role in apparently secular societies but are also seen as public spaces to which access should be free. This raises questions about the design, presentation or refurbishment of religious buildings in a plural city. For some, the very idea that their religious building might be a ‘public’ sacred space is a difficult one. Even city-centre churches with historic public roles and multiple religious, cultural or social uses (such as
St Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square) face a delicate balance between the needs of a core religious community and of other users. In certain French city centres, the Church has taken over shop-front foyers that offer contemplative spaces for passers-by. In the heart of Boston’s Prudential Center, the major downtown complex of shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and cinemas, is St Francis Chapel. Apart from conventional religious services, this is designed to be a sacred space among many spaces, accessible to all and divided from the concourse only by a glass wall offering a clear view inside. There have also been attempts in both Europe and North America to create inter-religious spaces with no fixed symbols; but such neutrality is not always effective.
The challenge for explicitly sacred spaces is how to enable a sense of inclusivity without losing a building’s spiritual integrity by offering sterile blandness.
If we also believe that expressions of the sacred extend in contemporary cities beyond religious buildings, what kinds of places qualify? This elicits a range of responses as the contemporary sense of the sacred has dispersed into many symbolic spaces. Two that are regularly mentioned are parks and art galleries or museums. The open spaces of urban parks and gardens evoke deep feelings of connection to nature or a sense of the numinous and equally enhance the human spirit. Yet, as places also for recreation and play, parks counter the association of ‘the sacred’ exclusively with solemnity and seriousness. For other people, galleries and museums, especially national ones attached to evocative public spaces (such as the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square), have a particular capacity to be ‘sacred’. Galleries
The challenge for sacred spaces is how to enable a sense of inclusivity without losing a building’s spiritual integrity
contain powerful symbols of a community’s creativity, aspirations, and quest for self-transcendence. They are also a kind of sanctuary from the pace of city life – spaces for silence, thinking, even a kind of healing. Yet they also offer the possibility of shared contemplation with strangers, hospitality in spaces for eating and the ability to purchase beautiful artefacts as mementoes. The challenge is how to present such spaces in a way that enables people to feel comfortable rather than unworthy in the face of high culture and in a way that can attract children for whom reverential silence is not an immediate instinct.
If the sacred also has resonances of reverence and awe, it is important to think about what makes buildings ‘awesome’ in a constructive sense. Does this imply more than design and also reflect motive and purpose? Are ‘reverence’ and ‘awe’ more likely in relation to buildings and spaces that reinforce the value of people at large rather than merely enhance the self-identity of closed economic or social groups? In this context, it is interesting to consider the contemporary genre of ‘iconic’ buildings. I am suspicious of architecture that makes pompous claims for itself. An icon is more than urban bling. Traditionally, an icon points to and offers access to something beyond itself and is also a representative symbol of what is enduring. In that sense, a self-conscious icon is a contradiction in terms. Just as the great churches of the pre-modern city offered a clear reference point that somehow made the place ‘readable’, so too should modern iconic buildings. Apart from being impressive and highly visible, a truly iconic structure articulates the nature of a place. This implies a kind of self-denial by the building in favour of a wider purpose, which raises the question of how to balance the awesome with a degree of reticence.
The nature of sacred architecture changes to express the spirit of an age. The Victorians thought the Gothic style was more spiritual (for churches) and generally elevating (for public buildings). Has minimalism now become the new design spirituality that speaks of a higher life marked by pure, light spaces and few objects? John Pawson, an apostle of minimalism and architect of the impressive Novy Dvur monastery in Bohemia, denies promoting a new asceticism. Nevertheless, he appears to want his designs to speak of ‘the condition of the world’. For Pawson, architecture is clearly not the triumph of abstract design over life but connects with his vision of what is most profound about human A
A existence. The positive aspect is that minimalism, while an aesthetic, also embodies an ethic of simplicity and ecological sensibility in a world of excess. It also seeks to create a kind of material ‘silence’ in response to what might be called the spiritual problematic of our age – restlessness and the desperate quest for distraction. Yet a question mark about nominating minimalism as the pre-eminently sacred architecture for our times is that its spaces of stillness sometimes appear to mimic Le Corbusier’s prioritisation of inward-looking spaces at the expense of effective public space.
As we confront urban futures, the value of a sense of ‘the sacred’ is its capacity to evoke reverence for the wider good by promoting the transcendence of a self-absorbed culture of material satisfaction. Despite the danger of prescriptive overtones, in city-making I sense that there is a serious need for architects to focus clearly on the task of enhancing people’s lives. This implies an ethical function in what they do and who they do it for. If there is a purpose, beyond mere function, of building or planning, it is surely to help rather than hinder the common good. This demands a spiritual vision and moral ambition which affirms that building well goes beyond efficient systems, good engineering and pleasing aesthetics.
Yet ethics is not divorced from aesthetics. We need to rediscover the links between beauty and well-being by recovering a sense that architectural design relates to visions of life in several ways. It contributes to our constructions of reality. It influences our experience of being human. It helps us to re-conceive the city as sacred.
At the same time, being people of vision does not imply that architects should dispense moral or spiritual wisdom from above in isolation from the community at large. Architects will be genuinely spiritual forces in city-making precisely when they avoid being Olympian social engineers. Instead the aim should be to empower citizens to articulate for themselves a common ethos that engages not only with the soul of the city but with the sacredness of human life as a whole.
Professor Philip Sheldrake is a research fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Durham.