The Extraordinary in Architecture:

 Studying and Acknowledging  the Reality of the Spiritual

Julio Bermudez

College of Architecture + Planning — University of Utah — Salt Lake City (USA)

bermudez@arch.utah.edu — www.arch.utah.edu/julio.htm

Julio Bermudez is an Associate Professor at the University of Utah College of Architecture + Planning, where he teaches theory, communications and design.

His research interests are in phenomenology, the development of voluntary architectural simplicity, and the relationship between architecture, culture and spirituality. Bermudez has received many recognitions and his work has been widely published and performed. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Minnesota (USA).

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #12 – Autumn 2009

Under certain conditions the experience of architecture is able to deliver us into an extraordinary state nothing short of mystical. Such ecstatic events are usually kept secret, protected behind a shield of privacy, for fear of not just embarrassment but, worse, academic or professional ostracism. Yet, despite such dangers, qualms, and repression, there are a few trustable testimonies.1 What is remarkable about these reports is their consistency in describing situations that defy our beliefs, ideas, and knowledge of architecture, self, and beyond. For example, people recount the dissolution of the subject-object divide, an overwhelming sense of well-being, profound intuitions on nature and life, significant space-time perceptual abnormalities, ecstatic love for it all, a direct apprehension of the ultimate goodness of/in the universe (god, or reality) and language’s inefficiency to express the experienced. New and substantial empirical evidence strongly support these testimonies.2

 

 

 

Although we are initially tempted to categorize such profound experiences of architecture as ‘extreme aesthetics’, these events challenge the ‘aesthetic’ definition at least as understood by Modern and Postmodern philosophies and cultures. Aesthetics is a limited, perceptual understanding of experience focused on ‘beauty’ that was created at the turn of the 18th century in direct response to Cartesian dualism and the rise of rationalism and science.3 In contrast, the experiences we are talking about are not limited to the sensual or perceptual realm alone. Quite to the contrary, once in ‘trance’, these experiences present reality as a beautiful, true, and good wholeness all at once. Having one of these rare experiences (and they are indeed very infrequent) makes the lucky individual appreciate and understand Plato’s argument that beauty inevitably leads to, and is indeed love and truth.
But let us make no mistake. There is no Platonic idealism here. These realizations come from direct, first-hand experiences and, in this sense, are close to Buddhist enlightenment. In other words, from an Heraclitean perspective, we don’t stay at the bank and observe, measure, analyze, or theorize about the “river of life”. Instead, we jump into the water, get wet, taste it, feel it, swim on it, and come to really know the actual nature of the “river”. We are ‘one’ with it, which is to say, there is no separation between me-subject and the river-object. There is only a conscious experience happening.
This non-dual state of consciousness is precisely what people report when describing profound experiences of architecture. And, when we thus engage a place, we find that the good, the beautiful and the true, the ‘Big Three’ as philosopher Ken Wilber calls them, are next to one another.4 More precisely, they are one and the same. Wilber argues that the integration of the ‘Big Three’ reveals their foundation on the ‘Big Fourth’: the spiritual. This suggests that the spiritual realm is just one perspectival shift away, continuously present, next to us, only waiting for us to make the necessary mental move to bring it into awareness. It just takes a sudden shift of consciousness to turn an ordinary into an extraordinary event. This seems easy enough, doesn’t it? However, the available data and our own life experiences demonstrate that these epiphanies are very rare events. What keeps us from getting there? Why is it so hard? Returning to Ken Wilber, we can say that profound experiences (i.e., accessing the spiritual) require a fundamental phenomenological move from third person detachment to first person intimacy. This means that “my” experience of a building (“it”) must shift from “me” and “it” as a duality, to just an experiential oneness where subject and object are merged. Although traditional phenomenological work enables us to move from the limiting and instrumentalist view of a building as inert matter to be externally approached (an “it”) to one of architecture as materialized intentionality that actively interacts with us in a meaningful and experiential conversation (a “you”), such shift is still not strong enough to move us away from dualism. It is only when we completely dive into the ‘thick’ reality of a building, without holding back, that the “unio mystica” —the extraordinary— has a chance to occur.5
And it is here that the power of architecture becomes apparent. Architects, through their work, may create the potential conditions that ‘pushes’ the visitor/user to go from third to first-person experience, thus, accessing a realm of integral spiritual unity: beauty, goodness, truth. Architecture compassionately assists us in effecting this radical shift!6 Such remarkable a potential in what we do and surrounds us cannot and should not be kept unspoken, secret, repressed, forgotten, or dismissed! For there are few (if any) more necessary revolutions for our trouble times than challenging the numbness, cynicism, blindness, and materialism that impede our awakening to the divinity of the present moment. Once that insight and sensibility is attained, it leads to an attitude of profound appreciation compassion, care, and commitment toward life, others, ourselves, and the environment. From such position, most serious problems afflicting our world today can be tackled in agreeable, believable, and solvable ways. It is for this reason that airing, studying and discussing the hitherto silenced or rejected voices of the extraordinary in architecture is a major duty of our discipline to the ethos of today.

1. Among others, see: Tadao Ando, “Tadao Ando on Le Corbusier” in Architects on Architects, ed. Susan Gray (New Cork: Mc Graw-Hill, 2002), 11-17; Steven Holl, “Archetypal Experiences of Architecture”, A+U: Questions of Perception (special issue 1994): 121-135. Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, ed. and trans. Ivan Zaknic in collaboration with Nicole Pertuiset (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987). “Philip Johnson”, in Conversations with Architects, ed. John W. Cook and Heinrich Klotz, (New York: Praeger Publishers Inc, 1973), 11-51. Claudio Silvestrin, Claudio Silvestrin (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhaüser, 1999) Peter Zumthor, “The Magic of the Real”, World Architecture 175 (01/2005):18-20.
2. This refers to the results of a massive, year-long, online survey of extraordinary architectural experiences that gathered nearly 2,900 testimonies. For more, see Julio Bermudez, “Amazing Grace. New Research into ‘Extraordinary Architectural Experiences’ Reveals the Central Role of Sacred Places”, Faith & Form 52:3 (2009): 8-13 (or visit: http://faculty.arch.utah.edu/alive/survey.htm)
3. Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, trans. Nicholas Walker (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture (Cambridge, MA: the MIT Press, 1997). Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).
4. Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality (Boston: Shambala, 2006) and Integral Psychology (Boston: Shambala, 2000).
5. William James, Varieties of Religious Experiences (New York: Touchstone, 2004)
6. Of course, the presence of a conducive piece of work does not guarantee the move from third to first-person experience. It only makes it more likely. The situation is like tango: there needs to be two parties engaged. The person must also be ‘ready’. What this ‘ready’ means or how to attain such preparedness is the subject of another article!

1. Among others, see: Tadao Ando, “Tadao Ando on Le Corbusier” in Architects on Architects, ed. Susan Gray (New Cork: Mc Graw-Hill, 2002), 11-17; Steven Holl, “Archetypal Experiences of Architecture”, A+U: Questions of Perception (special issue 1994): 121-135. Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, ed. and trans. Ivan Zaknic in collaboration with Nicole Pertuiset (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987). “Philip Johnson”, in Conversations with Architects, ed. John W. Cook and Heinrich Klotz, (New York: Praeger Publishers Inc, 1973), 11-51. Claudio Silvestrin, Claudio Silvestrin (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhaüser, 1999) Peter Zumthor, “The Magic of the Real”, World Architecture 175 (01/2005):18-20.
2. This refers to the results of a massive, year-long, online survey of extraordinary architectural experiences that gathered nearly 2,900 testimonies. For more, see Julio Bermudez, “Amazing Grace. New Research into ‘Extraordinary Architectural Experiences’ Reveals the Central Role of Sacred Places”, Faith & Form 52:3 (2009): 8-13 (or visit: http://faculty.arch.utah.edu/alive/survey.htm)
3. Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, trans. Nicholas Walker (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture (Cambridge, MA: the MIT Press, 1997). Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).
4. Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality (Boston: Shambala, 2006) and Integral Psychology (Boston: Shambala, 2000).
5. William James, Varieties of Religious Experiences (New York: Touchstone, 2004)
6. Of course, the presence of a conducive piece of work does not guarantee the move from third to first-person experience. It only makes it more likely. The situation is like tango: there needs to be two parties engaged. The person must also be ‘ready’. What this ‘ready’ means or how to attain such preparedness is the subject of another article!