The Sacred in Everyday Pedagogy: Efforts to infuse architectural design pedagogy with spiritual method and intent

Wendy Redfield

North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina

Wendy Redfield is a registered architect and Associate Professor of Architecture at North Carolina State University where she has taught since 1998. Her scholarly research focuses on issues of site, and on the cultural and spiritual sides of architecture. Ms. Redfield has delivered papers at conferences nationally and internationally, and has published writings and mounted exhibits on the subject of site representation and analysis. She is currently engaged in a design project for affordable housing in Henderson, North Carolina.

“Precious moments of intuition result from patient work.”1

The segregation of spiritual matters from daily life in contemporary times plays itself out forcefully within the context of most arenas of architectural education. Whether in design, history, or technology courses, buildings are considered primarily as physical artifacts, occasionally representative of cultural values, and rarely if ever as manifestations of Spirit. This is the case despite the many great works of architecture – ancient and modern – motivated by spiritual aspirations, and informed by spiritual intent.

As a professor of architecture with active spiritual concerns, I have sought to bridge the apparent chasm between a professional milieu dominated by rational, intellectual method, and a sacred view of the purpose, value, and process of architecture. My teaching has always been enriched by my private spiritual practice. Recently, however, I have experimented with bringing an overtly spiritual dimension to my architectural teaching. This essay reports on two such experiments.

Case-study 1 – Found Architecture

There is a certain slant of light
On winter afternoons
That oppresses like the heft
of cathedral tunes… 2

(Figure 1, Student Drawing, Marshall Prado)
At the beginning of the spring semester of 2004, I asked twelve undergraduate seniors to sit out in bitterly cold weather and draw in a bleak warehouse district for hours on end, daily, for two weeks. Their assignment was described as follows:
Architecture requires us to strike a balance between rational thought, and intuitive knowing. The analytical process of managing the manifold pragmatic requirements of architecture can overwhelm the gentle, unobtrusive, but sure creative leaning that is the true source of beauty in any artistic work. One tool for generating and maintaining this intuitive spark throughout the design process is the meditative, daily practice of drawing. Experimenting with a variety of drawing methods – selected for their ability to capture nuanced qualities of a space – we will seek a meditative state. We will seek to record a site’s full experiential presence, and discover a ‘found architecture’ from an understanding of place.

The purpose was to activate each student’s ‘gentle knowing’ through a form of drawing meditation.

(Figure 2, Student Drawing, Marshall Prado)
The results of this short exercise were rather extraordinary. Daily, the students sat and contemplated the same scene at different times of day, conditions of light, and personal mood. They drew when they wanted to and when they didn’t; they drew when they thought they couldn’t. They were often humbled by the daily practice, and occasionally were inspired by it in ways reminiscent of monastic supplication.

“…the most profound life experiences for artists take place in silent communion with their work.” 3

As the students drew, annotated their drawings, observed, struggled, resisted, and in each case ultimately surrendered to the practice, they fell deeply in love with their subject view, and with the practice of representing what they saw, or more precisely, how they felt about what they saw.

(Figure 4, Student Drawing, Marshall Prado)
As the drawings progressed, the initial struggles to capture perspective, or intricate conditions of light, shadow, or texture, ultimately gave way to increasingly abstract depictions. The drawings became more pointed, more powerful. By the end of the two-week exercise, students were in fact zeroing in on the qualitative essence of the spaces they were contemplating…rather than only on ‘what they looked like’. They began to see and effectively communicate the connection between form and essence through personal experience. This was a major breakthrough.

Case-study 2 – Pure Form; Pure Matter

“For deep in every revolution, discreetly hidden, resides a Classicism, which is a form of constant.” 4

On the first day of studio, in January of 2005, I brought two stacks of cards, face down, and asked each student to pick one card from each pile. In one pile were cards with images of four elemental materials: wood, earth, metal, and stone. In the other, were cards bearing images of Le Corbusier’s five ‘elementary forms’ from “Architecture, The Lesson of Rome”: cylinder, pyramid, cube, rectangular prism, and sphere.5

Thus each student randomly selected an elemental material and a ‘pure form’: wood + sphere, stone + cube, metal + cylinder, and so on. Students then conducted research on their form and their material fully. They invented ways their form could be crafted with their material, and ultimately began to imagine their materialized forms as architectural propositions (with program, site conditions, orientation, etc. as imagined by each student).

(Figure 5, Student Drawing, David Moses)
The primary intentions of the project were twofold: first, to convey the timeless and archetypal nature of certain forms whose signification and power transcend the vicissitudes of different times, regions, and cultures; and second, to encourage an awareness of the expressive power of materials.

The idea for the project emerged directly from a lecture by Masaru Emoto, featuring his inspiring work on the effect of human communication on water crystals made visible via microscopic photography. The idea that there is a direct relationship between form and meaning, or form and consciousness, is certainly nothing new. However, Emoto’s studies are contemporary, scientifically rigorous, simple, and visible; all qualities making them more accessible to the average architecture student. The study of sacred geometry and bio-geometry that I was engaged in at the time emphasized the exacting nature of producing forms and proportions most beneficial to people from an energetic perspective. This highly precise approach to deriving form seemed in sharp contrast to the expressionistic shape-making I was observing in trade magazines and design studios alike. Placing an emphasis on archetypal forms, and the symbolism they have possessed for millennia, along with materials in their pure (non-composite) state, gave me a way to present an alternative approach to design.
(Figure 6, Student Drawing, David Moses)

Concluding Observations

In both studios, I found more receptivity than resistance to these unusual, esoteric explorations. In some cases, students expressed relief to have an opportunity to explore the more intuitive, more spiritual side of creativity, especially against the backdrop of predominately rational design methods usually experienced in school. The process and outcome of the longer projects for which these were relatively brief introductions, were enriched greatly by them. I found the level of engagement, outside research, and seriousness of intent among the students to be significantly higher than in a more ‘typical’ studio. Students seemed to feel they had more at stake; they seemed to sense a higher purpose, and a higher standard than the norm.
While these experiences were initial steps toward reintegrating the sacred into architectural education, they taught me not to fear employing alternate pedagogies. I learned that my students were open, even eager, to breach the divide.

1. Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture (Baden: Lars Muller Publishers, 1998), p. 20.
2. Emily Dickinson, as quoted in Wolf Kahn, Wolf Kahn Pastels (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 2000), p. 127.

3. Wolf Kahn, Wolf Kahn Pastels (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 2000), p. 27.

4. Amedee Ozenfant and Charles Edouard Jeanneret, Apres le Cubisme cited in Reyner Banham, “Paris: The World of Art and Le Corbusier,” Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (New York: Praeger, 1960), p. 210.

5. Le Corbusier, Toward An Architecture, trans. John Goodman (Los Angeles: Getty, 2007), p. 200.