Architectural Practice – Spiritual Practice 

Thomas Barrie

Professor of Architecture, North Carolina State University

Thomas Barrie AIA is a Professor of Architecture at North Carolina State University where he served as School Director from 2002 – 2007. Professor Barrie is a scholar of sacred architecture and author of Spiritual Path, Sacred Place: Myth Ritual and Meaning in Architecture (Shambhala Publications, 1996). His research focuses on alternative histories of architecture and, in particular, the interrelationship of a culture’s architecture and its cultural/religious beliefs and communal rituals. His research has brought him to sacred sites around the world and he has published numerous articles and lectured extensively on his subject area. His scholarship has been supported by numerous grants including two from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Fine Arts. His most-recent book entitled The Sacred In-Between: The Mediating Roles of Architecture will be published by Routledge in 2010.

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #12 – Autumn 2009

The contemporary, and increasingly international, architectural profession (and media) often present competing and incomplete views of architectural practice. In particular, the predominant culture often separates design from practice – the former presented as largely idiosyncratic and visionary; the latter as anonymous and rational. Missing are more fundamental, diverse and nuanced conceptions of practice that transgress these arbitrary boundaries. We need to remember that, by definition, practice is the means to deepen and broaden skills, or apply beliefs and principles. The truncation of these essential aspects of practice has produced a profession that is often “out of practice.”

In this context I will discuss some alternate views and broadened aspirations of architectural practice. To do so, definitions and applications of practice will be presented, with a particular emphasis on spiritual and philosophical practices, as a means to reconsider normative views of architecture. I will also discuss pertinent aspects of the history of the profession (including architectural education) germane to predominant contemporary presumptions and positions. Lastly, I will suggest that inner and outer directed spiritual and philosophical practices may provide models applicable to expanding our often narrowly defined parameters of practice.

Spiritual Practice

Spiritual practices (in all of their forms) are, of course, intrinsic to religion. They deeply engage our bodies, minds and spirits, and serve to orient us to our highest purposes. Inner spiritual practices include individual devotions and communal rituals that have traditionally been employed

to bridge the gap between ignorance and understanding, the human and the divine. Daily prayers, prostrations and meditations serve to maintain our spiritual orientation and, over time, deepen our engagements and understandings. Outer practices include the common religious tenants of serving those with physical and spiritual needs and advancing a culture. Every tradition asks its practitioners, from lay to clergy, to sincerely and routinely practice its individual and communal acts, with the presumption (and expectation) that self-improvement and societal advancement will result. In most religious traditions it is the direct engagement intrinsic to spiritual practice that makes it real, accessible and presumably effective. Regular practice is required to establish the inner and outer connections that are sought — that is why it is called practice.

Philosophical Traditions as Practice

We can broaden our perspectives regarding the value of the direct engagements spiritual practices require by including philosophical traditions that incorporate “practices” as part of their systems. Phenomenology, the 100-year-old European philosophical tradition, distinguished itself from much of Western philosophy in that it aimed to integrate subjective experience with the objective sciences. Developed, in part, as a counter-project to objective scientism, it insisted that individual engagement is always part of any scientific inquiry. Contemporary architectural theories that incorporate phenomenology typically argue for the design of sensually rich environments. The emphasis on a “return to the things themselves” is a valuable alternative to the dry formalism of contemporary architectural aesthetics. However, it often obscures the fundamental Phenomenological perspective of personal engagement, which suggests the value of immersion in the making, experience and larger contexts of the build environment.
American Transcendentalism, which emerged in New England in the 19th century, similarly insisted that one’s philosophy could only emerge from direct engagements with the world. The word transcendent, from which their name is derived, is from the Latin transcendere, which means to “cross a boundary,” an accurate description of its heterodox orientation. Its most well known formulator and promulgator, Ralph Waldo Emerson, distinguished idealists from realists – the former incorporating the subjective, the latter the only the objective. “Life,” for Emerson, “was something to be lived, not learned.” For Emerson, “art,” a term he used to describe any engaged, creative activity, was more of a means of engaging the world than of producing a particular artifact. “Art,” he insisted, “is the path of the creator to his work.” Similarly, his protégé Henry David Thoreau, who perhaps of all of his fellow Transcendentalists lived his philosophy, stated that, “the true poem is not that which the public read. There is always a poem not printed on paper, coincident with the production of this, stereotyped in the poet’s life. It is what he has become through his work. Not how is the idea expressed in stone, or on canvas or paper, is the question, but how far it has obtained form and expression in the life of the artist”1 (author’s italics).
Since its founding over 2500 years ago, Buddhism has developed an expansive philosophical system that in breadth and depth rivals the western traditions that continue to hold privileged positions in contemporary philosophical discourses and architectural theory (especially in the West). Spiritual practices have been emphasized throughout Buddhism’s history, and those who contributed to its philosophy (which is as varied as Western traditions), did so, at least in part, through their personal practices. Meditation, based on the methods developed by the Buddha, continues to be its primary spiritual practice and aims to establish connections with broader and deeper experiential and psychic contexts. As described by contemporary Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, “As we continue to reestablish and focus our attention, new levels of understanding will come into view… through very careful attention we can experience new levels of the instantaneous arising and passing of the whole body and mind. As we ‘dissolve,’ so do the boundaries between ‘us’ and the ‘world outside,’ and we can come to experience the unity and nonseparation of all things, and find a freedom not limited by any of them.”2 It is through meditation practice that one both deeply connects with, and transcends, the experience of being alive in a particular time and place.

Contemporary Architectural Practice

Tom Fisher states that we have “compartmentalized design and practice,” citing, for example, that most schools consider them to be “separate realms, relegating the practice ‘support’ courses to the end of the curriculum, long after students have come to think of design as the making of form and the shaping of space.” He argues that this bifurcation can be “traced back centuries to divisions, in Western culture at least, between art and business, thinking and doing, gentry and merchants.”3 The history of the profession in the West reveals a progression of splits consistent with the specialization (and separation) that, in part, defines Western culture. According to Spiro Kostof, architecture as a profession, distinct from the building trades, was first established in 19th century England. It was during this formative time that the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), founded in 1834, led efforts to standardize education and practice. At this time the education of architects began to shift from the apprenticeship model to specialized instruction at universities. Debates ensued regarding the separation of “art” from “science” reflected in the new curriculums. The creation of a specialized profession was also challenged, most vociferously by leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement. John Ruskin worried that an emphasis on professional standards and services would separate the architect from the making (“art”) of architecture and conflate the architect’s work (and value) with that of the engineer.4 I am not arguing in favor of Ruskin’s (and his contemporaries) position, but offer it to illustrate that debates regarding the separation of design and practice have been around for a long time. (Similarly, the distinction between a building and architecture has a long history. This bifurcation was perhaps most famously described by Nicholas Pevsner who, in 1943, stated that “a bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is architecture.”) Perhaps it is time to reconsider these, and other, false dichotomies.
It may also be time to reconsider the privileged position of the visionary architect – a rather old-fashioned ideal that found its most potent distillation in early Modernism. Its historical roots can be traced to the French Ecole des Beaux Arts, which in the 18th and 19th centuries created the design studio, led by masters in a highly competitive environment — a model adopted by the first schools of architecture and still predominant today. Its emphasis on analyzing and applying ideal precedents embodied European Idealism and Rationalism. Western Idealism is perhaps best illustrated by the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who positioned history as a progression of defined epochs led by visionary individuals. Enlightenment philosophies from the 18th century were equally influential in the prejudicing of individual reason and objectivism.5 All of these (briefly outlined) perspectives made important and positive contributions to the progressive and emancipatory aspects of Western culture. However, they can also be viewed as the background to prevalent notions regarding our focus on “starchitects,” styles, freedom from constraints, and bifurcation of design and practice.

Alternatives and Expansions

Of course, there are many virtues and benefits of solid professional services and visionary architectural works. (I have worked in large, specialized professional firms and as an individual educator/architect.) We depend on the structures of professional practice to share resources, support our efforts and articulate common goals and agendas. And visionary architects have, and continue to perform, valuable roles in articulating possible futures. However, in a contemporary global culture that can be stupefying in its homogeneity, both often occupy a narrow territory, which is both mirrored and supported by education.6 At the end of the day subservience to client “needs” or to the requirements of the predominant taste culture are not substantially different.
With this in mind I now turn to considerations on how our perspectives – and practices – might be broadened and deepened. To do so we need to recognize the multifarious roles that architecture has traditionally performed in embodying meaning, engendering corporal and emotional responses, and serving to orient one in the world. Returning to spiritual and philosophical practices, I will discuss how architectural practice might be reconsidered as the means and medium of inner exploration and outer engagements.

4. Sketching can often be an immediate way to engage the built environment. Tongdo Monastery, Korea, Four Guardians Gate, sketch by Thomas Barrie

The symbolic practices employed by Jung helped him to make connections that otherwise would have remained hidden, including accessing and vivifying the past. This perspective provides a helpful antidote to contemporary culture that typically views history and its artifacts as dislocated from the present. Architectural history and theory, dominated by styles and movements, has difficulty viewing ancient (or even more recent) works as possessing a continuity of contemporary relevance. Hans Georg Gadamer argued that the historicizing of art effected a distancing of the individual from the work. He posited the counter-argument that a presentation of art is both dialogical and declarative, and thus is always contemporary because we have the ability to engage it in the present. We have much to gain from this perspective that invites us to engage the past (without presumptions or prejudices) and participate in its timeless present.
Phenomenology insists that much can be learned (and applied) through non-objective means. The practice of architecture, in this context, can be one of immersing ourselves in the experience of the built environment. Much like the natural environment is typically positioned as a spiritual teacher, the built environment (and they are all environments) can be similarly viewed. In this way, the history of architecture opens up to disclose a broad range of content and meaning that may hold significance to our work today. The formal and material prejudices of contemporary architectural culture may be balanced by the sensual, the experiential and the symbolic. In a world culture of rapid and often unreflective change, the ontological role of architecture remains undiminished (and perhaps is even more necessary).
Of course, transcendent experiences may not be limited to culturally and historically significant works, but can find a home in everyday places and habits. Daily practices of participation with the places we create or modify uncover the reciprocal relationship between place and experience. As in spiritual practices, we often need an intermediary to make the connections we seek. Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation, known in Southeast Asia as Vipassana, is a practice (at least in part), of cultivating fine-tuned awareness of moment-to-moment experience. Its practitioners meditate daily as a means to bring insights gained on their cushions to their everyday lives. I would suggest that direct, contemplative engagements with the multisensory experience of the built environment could aid in the creation of sensually rich and experientially generous architecture. Sitting silently, observing intently, or moving deliberately through architectural passages and spaces, are contemplative practices of engagement. In particular, sketching can often be an immediate way to engage the built environment. Through focused attention over a period of time, our pencil may articulate answers to questions that otherwise would remain unresolved (or not asked at all).

making of the architecture. The Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, one of his last works, features a voluminous dome on an octagonal base. Its intricately proportioned and luminous space is a timeless place that retains relevancy today. According to Gulru Necipoglu, Sinan’s works “transcend historical confinement and occupy a timeless present,” and hold “inexhaustible reservoirs of ‘ontological possibility.’”9
Communal rituals are a means to broaden our engagements with the built environment. It is through the practice of participation with architecture that its often-nuanced meanings are accessed. From group meditation, to devotional prayers, to ritual prostrations, we require architecture to both complete and deepen the ritual – and for the ritual to perform a reciprocal role. The spiritual collaboration of communal rituals can also be embodied in the collaborative nature of architectural practice. The top-down model of the visionary genius and the often-rational demands of business practice can be balanced by a spirit of communal inquiry. This perspective may serve as an antidote to an often-narcissistic design culture dominated by the one-size-fits-all moniker of “creativity,” and the often narrowly defined norms regarding what constitutes the innovative designs required of visionaries. It is an often-cited paradox that to transcend oneself one needs to fully explore oneself – and suggests ways to deepen our practices. It is through establishing a critical relationship with the presumptions and prejudices we inevitably bring to any creative activity that we may create places grounded in the multiple contexts of which they are a part, and arrive at the most appropriate and meaningful “solutions” to the “project.”

Outer Engagements

The New England Transcendentalists are most known for their introspective philosophy regarding an individual’s relationship to the world. What is less known are the communal and socially engaged trajectories that comprise an equal part of their history. Thoreau was not only a New England Diogenes living by himself on Walden Pond, but was an ardent anti-slavery activist. Many were deeply engaged in the social issues of their time and some participated in new models of communitarian living. In fact, without both complementary aspects, the potency of this important school of thought would be diminished. This is a useful perspective regarding the outer engagements of architectural practice.
Aspects of the predominant consumer culture may suggest that architecture principally comprises discrete, individual artifacts. However, the comodification of architecture is a rather recent development. We may more substantially view architecture as a cultural artifact that both embodies and advances the culture of which it is a part. The reciprocal relationship of architecture to culture underlines our responsibility to do our part to create a better world. Christopher Alexander’s statement that, “every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city,” can be applied to placemaking and architecture in general.

Architectural practice demands that we engage the essential issues of our time – issues that are too often viewed as peripheral to predominant positions regarding both creativity and “bottom line” business.
Recognizing architecture as a communicative media can deepen considerations of placemaking. We build not just for the “client” that commissioned the work, but also for the culture of which it is a part. We create places to satisfy present needs – but we also build for the future. We need alternative approaches to the formal prejudices of our time that recognize the multifarious contexts and roles of architecture, (which is not so much “frozen music” as “material culture.”) Architecture has the ability to engage others and lead them to understandings that may change their life. Places created for communal activities can facilitate the personal connections we crave and that give meaning to our lives. And architecture, in perhaps nuanced or poetic ways, can serve to explicate the world and our place in it. In this way it may serve as a media for expanding the collective consciousness of humanity. This is a role that it has played in the past, has been suppressed or denied in our current age, and needs to be reconsidered in the future.
Our time is one that offers significant challenges and opportunities for the practice of architecture. The context of global climate change and the responsibility to create a sustainable (in all of its definitions) world demand reconsiderations regarding practice. Building performance is often positioned as the answer to achieve energy efficiency, but technological approaches risk deepening the compartmentalization that contributed to our problems in the first place. Instead, a practice of architecture that recognizes the diverse and nuanced roles that architecture performs can conceive of “sustainability” as an interrelated design challenge. For example, dispersed settlement patterns are both a cultural artifact and significant components of fossil fuel dependence. More syncretic approaches may include broadening our definitions. Cultural sustainability, for example, may help us to find culturally based solutions to environmental and urban challenges that transcend but do not obviate the instrumental. Perspectives like this suggest broader and deeper contexts of which architecture is a part and the essential roles it can play.
If we accept that architecture, at least in part, is a means for humans to articulate their physical, psychic and spiritual position in the world, then spirituality and philosophies that aim for more direct and heterogeneous engagements with the world can serve to inform our understandings of the agency that architecture can perform. Our time calls for us to accept personal responsibility but not assume individual autonomy, revivify our spiritual and ethical principles, and broaden our practices to address the compelling issues of our time. Just as spiritual practices can engage both our inner and outer worlds, so can a repositioned practice of architecture. In this way our spiritual and architectural practices will no longer be separate – both one.

1. From Walden, Carl Bode, Ed., The Portable Thoreau, New York: Penguin Books, 1977
2. Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation, Boston and London: Shambhala Publications, 1987, pp. 64 – 65.
3. Thomas Fisher, In the Scheme of Things: Alternative Thinking on the Practice of Architecture, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000
4. Spiro Kostof, The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 180 – 208
5. Fisher, op. cit., pp. 69 – 70
6. Professional Education too often offers truncated territories of both the profession and education. The profession is typically covered in professional practice courses of limited scope, and education is often more vocational than educational – inculcating the conventions of “traditional” architectural practice or indoctrinating the (often vague) tenants of the predominant taste culture.
7. Thoreau, op. cit., p. 270
8. Dom H. van der Laan, (Richard Padovan, trans.), Architectonic Space, Fifteen Lessons on the Disposition of the Human Habitat, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1983, p. 182.
9. Gulru Necipoglu, The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2005, p. 16.