Published in 2A Magazine issue # 45 – Summer 2020
Many of us believe in an “invisible order of things, as philosopher William James called it, that is, in the existence of some metaphysical realm, organization, or entity. We recognize such force, presence as “transcendent because it is not self, ethnic, nation, culture, or even human centric. Most religions tell us that being in harmony with such “invisible order of things is the path to salvation, non-suffering, heaven, wisdom, love, goodness, nirvana, and more. Alignment with the divine order is so important that the all faith traditions provide us with concrete teachings and spiritual practices to facilitate it And, we are not alone in believing in the transcendent. To the contrary, a 2012 WIN-Gallup International poll on religiosity and atheism found that 59% of the world’s population is religious, 23% are not religious (but do not call themselves atheist,” 1 suggesting an openness to nonorganized spiritual belief or practice) and only 13% report to be atheist. Other polls have found, for instance, that, 80% of Americans believe in God and 74% in heaven.2
Yet, despite so many people professing a religious or spiritual conviction, our world is far from doing well. The results of our not so sacred actions are clear: overconsumption, greed, pollution, climate change, global warming, xenophobia, terrorism, arm races, and wars. And no country, however developed,” is exempt. For example, we in the U.S. face serious issues of racism, homelessness, poverty, access to health care, and mindless violence.
Some may say that religion and spirituality are the problem but I beg to differ. All religions share fundamental values of love and compassion, charity, self-constraint and humility, respect for life, non-aggression and justice, honesty and sacrifice, and so on. In fact, all faiths promise eternal life, nirvana, or some reward for fulfilling the clear instructions handed down by God and recorded in sacred texts or teachings. In other words, at least by intention and instruction, it is not religion and spirituality that propel our bad behaviors or condone them. Rather, it is that our religious or spiritual beliefs are not actually enacted, put into practice. Something is clearly lost in translation when we go from the heights of transcendence to daily living. It seems that our spiritual beliefs, values, and practices remain forgotten, buried in the unconscious, or considered purely “theoretical” or impractical to deal with how things are in the “real world.
Why? If there is something on which most religions agree, it is that our ordinary human condition is not strong, pure, or enlightened enough to keep the transcendent in mind and at heart most of the time. And this is as true individually as collectively. We forget our spiritual beliefs, values, and examples and act out of selfish, tribal, ethnocentric, nationalistic, ideological, or other interests. And it is precisely for this reason that all faiths have developed rules, teachings, and practices to guide us toward the divine, however differently each defines it. Very much like a young tree that needs proper staking and care to grow healthy, so are religious pedagogies intended to guide our spiritual development.
Let’s consider for a moment the three pillars of spiritual practice common to all three of the Abrahamic traditions: prayer, charity, and fasting. Prayer is a regular practice to be or communicate with the transcendent in order to cast light on all we do, providing the widest and deepest of all perspectives. Contemplation and meditation are part of this same practice. Charity exercises and develops our sense of empathy, love, and compassion for others by offering our time, effort, or possessions to those that need them more. In many faiths, this is the fastest or most direct way to God. Fasting invokes voluntary self-retraint, towards a life of simplicity, a movement away from selfish desires for the sale of developing humbleness, clarity of purpose, appreciation of what is given, and discipline. It is practicing how to say no or stop, and an emptying out and non-doing to fill ourselves up with the divine.
The real problem is that these spiritual practices are hard to implement and maintain in everyday life. For this reason, most of us engage them (when we do) only sporadically, that is, 1-2 hours per week during a visit to our temples for prayer or meditation, in some annual volunteer work in the case of charity, and similarly for fasting. This is hardly enough to grow spiritually. It’s like trying to be a decent skier or basketball player practicing once a week for a couple of hours. Without continuous practice our original nature, whether we call it sinful, unenlightened, or selfish-a nature that is continuously being supported by an unrelenting culture and marketplacetakes over. And we get the world we have.
Clearly, we need some assistance in doing our spiritual practices more regularly, hopefully in ways that demand little or no effort. What if we moved architecturally assisted spiritual practices from the sacred to the secular? Can we emplace spiritual practices through architecture?
There are good reasons for proposing this course of action. We spend 90% of our time inside constructed or designed environments. Therefore, our built environment cannot be avoided and it affects us directly. Such a common sense statement finds growing empirical support from scientific research, particularly in the past decade with the use of the brain sciences and imaging. 3
While there is nothing original about claiming that buildings may assist us in our spiritual practice-human history is replete with examples of architectures with this goal in mind –what is new is the idea of embedding a variety of pedagogies to nudge us into spiritual practices within the realm of profane buildings.
Two important caveats are due. First, I am not proposing to transform the whole built environment in sacred spaces and structures. I am only suggesting to embed practices supporting spiritually-centered behavior and psychology Second, we must recognize that, since we live in diverse societies, spiritual practices and teachings are here to be understood as those common to all faiths. The three practices earlier defined, prayer (contemplation, mediation), charity (empathy, love and compassion), and fasting (moderation, simple living, humility) fit this requirement. Their values, practices, and outcomes are to be considered in their most spiritual, inspirational and humanistic sense, and not through religious dogma.
So, suppose we ask how buildings and the city can help us honor and practice our beliefs, find the transcendent, and evolve spiritually? The answer could be by building architectures and urban spaces that foster (1) alignment/ contemplation, (2) connection/giving, and (3) abstention/ reduction, among some general qualities (Figure 1).
Next, I will present six actual architectural examples of how this vision might be accomplished.
It’s hard to believe that you can help people evolve spiritually by making a parking garage, but here you have such a project in Cadiz by Spanish architect Alberto Campo Baeza. If you take the ramp on your left (Figures 2 and 3), you are brought up to the platform and if you turn around once you get there, suddenly you have the Atlantic Ocean all for yourself. You are lifted up from the ordinary business and noise of the street and catapulted into a state of solitude and contemplation. Notice also how everything inessential is removed (an act of architectural “fasting”), and the building focuses on what matters which is a connection, or better said, an alignment with the “invisible order of things. In offering this amazing place to any ordinary citizen walking by, the structure is also an act of giving an act of charity, care, and compassion. Thus, through design and commitment to the transcendent, an ordinary parking garage has become a gate to God by encouraging contemplation and prayer, illuminating the importance of fasting to reach what matters, and freely sharing it in an act of love and kindness to others.
The next example is the Inner-City Arts in Los Angeles by Michael Maltzan architects. It is an example of charity Located just east of downtown Los Angeles, this project provides arts education each year for over 10,000 at-risk youth from Los Angeles public school system. The campus houses a range of art facilities and is an oasis of giving in a pretty run-down part of town. This really beautiful building not only honors and dignifies the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society, and provides them with an education (the ground of all spirituality), but also through this very act of giving (an altruistic and compassionate act) the whole community grows spiritually.
Bringing nature back into cities, particularly those towns or neighborhoods destroyed by 20th century urbanism or industrialism, is another way in which spiritual practices can be emplaced in built environments. Sustainability and the respect / celebration / connection to other living creatures and life in general, are very important to our cause. They certainly help us to align ourselves with the “invisible order of things.” A good example is the High Line in Manhattan by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (Figure 4).
A society cannot evolve spiritually when many of its members are homeless or live in slums. The Quinta Monroy Housing in Iquique, Chile by architect Alejandro Aravena (the 2016 Pritzker prize awardee), is an excellent example of how to emplace spiritual practices of fasting and charity. This project uses a very reduced architectural palette, in great part due to the budget constraints of social housing, but also because it allows its dwellers (people that have been taken out of the slums or homelessness) to adapt / grow / use these buildings as they see fit, encouraging their own development and that of their community. People can personalize the dwellings as they wish, thus affirming their power and identity. The foundation of a society’s spiritual growth is grounded on the weakest and not the wealthiest The practice of fasting (i.e., moderation and self-retraint) in our contemporary consumer society suggests architectures and spaces that encourage idleness, non-doing in the sense of not engaging in productive / marketable / instrumental work. We are talking of architectures that invite “being” instead of doing” or “having.” One excellent example is the grand plaza in front of the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris (Figure 5), where people go to do nothing to hang out. It is precisely this very “unproductive behavior that allows people to be with, to get comfortable with, and to meet strangers and to get to know them. Empathy grows out of this interaction. We only love what we know; it is from spaces like this that diverse communities have a chance to exist and prosper.
Another example of emplacing spiritual practice via architecture is the Public Library designed by architect Moshe Safdie in Salt Lake City, Utah (Figure 6). Embraced by all members of the community, the building is not only a place to get information and knowledge, foundations of spiritual growth, but also for life’s habitual simpler activities such as meeting friends, grabbing lunch, hanging out, hosting festivals, to see and be seen. It is so popular that some citizens use it as the context for their most important events in life such as marriage. But the services of this library go still further, such as supporting the homeless community in Salt Lake City and serving them with classes and other options.
The last example is the Transit Hub in New York City by architect Santiago Calatrava, next to the 9-11 memorial, commonly referred to as the “Oculus” (Figures 7, 8, and 9). This building is the closest to a secular cathedral you will ever see in a big city. The stunningly beautiful, angelical, celestial space embraces the thousands upon thousands of people crossing it every day. There is a shopping mall on the bottom floor but what is remarkable about the place is that besides those who are walking through, there are always plenty of people just looking around, in awe of the place, facing up into the light that pours down. The dramatic scale and verticality of this space and also its incredible silence and beauty invite contemplation and non-doing, even in the midst of ordinary living. I should add that, despite the huge public criticism about cost, time delays, and more, myself was brought to tears by this space which I felt to be an act of great love and compassion for the ordinary citizen: a celebration of human dignity.
Conclusion If we believe that if the design and experience of the built environment can assist the spiritual development of humanity while addressing the world’s most pressing issues,” as the Architecture, Culture and Spirituality Forum so well articulates in its webpage, then our ultimate job as architects, landscape architects, interior designers, and planners is to assist our fellow human beings to align with the “invisible order of things,” something we can do by emplacing spiritual practices through the structures we design and build.
This action becomes all the more urgent and relevant considering that we are now an urban civilization posed for an explosive population growth in the next 50 years. To put it differently, since the future of humanity is directly intertwined with what happens in urban built environments, our spiritual growth will increasingly depend and demand a progressive utilization of architecture.
2.The results of the 2018 Pew Research Center survey on belief in God is available here: https://www.pewforum.org/2018/04/25/when-americans-say-they-believe-in-god-what-do-they-mean/ The results of the 2015 Pew Research Center survey on belief in heaven available here: https://www.pewresearch.org/facttank/2015/11/10/most-americans-believe-in-heavenand-hell (accessed Sept 8, 2019)
3.Al-barrak, E. Konj, & E.M.G. Younis, “NeuroPlace. Categorizing urban places according to mental states.” PLoS ONE vol. 12, no.9 (2017): e0183890. J. Bermudez, D. Krizaj, D.L. Lipschitz, C.E. Bueler, J. Rogowska, D. Yurgelun-Todd & Y. Nokamura, Y. (2017). “External ly-induced meditative states an exploratory fMRI study of architects’ responses to contemplative architecture.” Frontiers of Architectural Research, vol. 6, no. 2 (2017): 123-136. DOI: 10.1016/j.foar 2017.02.002. G.W. Evans and J.M. McCoy, “When Buildings Don’t Work: The Role of Architecture in Human Health, Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 18, no. 1 (1998): 85-94. L.B. Fich, P. Jonsson, P.H. Kirkegaard, M. Wallergård, A.H. Garde, & A. Hansen “Can architectural design alter the physiological reaction to psychosocial stress? A virtual TSST experiment, Physiology & Behavior vol. 135 (2014): 91-97. S. Robinson & J. Pallasmoo, Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015).
4.See http://www.acsforum.org (accessed Sept 8, 2019).