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Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture

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A new collection of essays expand on Le Corbusier’s definition of sacred space in architecture to illuminating effect, writes Ayla Lepine

‘The quality of perfection’

Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture, edited by Karla Cavarra Britton, Yale Architecture School/Yale University Press, 2010

At La Tourette Monastery in 1961, Le Corbusier said, ‘I am the inventor of the phrase “ineffable space”.’ He saw space as no longer dependent upon dimensions, ‘but on the quality of its perfection. It belongs to the domain of the ineffable, of that which cannot be said.’ In a new book, Karla Cavarra Britton suggests that Le Corbusier’s definition of ‘ineffable’ indicates both the ‘unspeakable’ and ‘inexpressible’ aspects of design and the fact that the architect’s challenge is to deploy materials that transcend their own materiality.

Britton was co-convener of the 2007 Yale symposium, Constructing the Ineffable, during which a group of architects, theologians, historians and critical theorists explored the tensions and fusions inherent in sacred spaces. Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture is the result of these initial dialogues. There is a vast range of topics and contexts covered in its 18 essays, from Zaha Hadid describing the inspirations behind her proposal for Kuwait’s Avenues Mall Mosque, to Vincent Scully’s analysis of the Temple of Hera at Paestum (550 BCE).

The book allows for productive contradictions between authors, enables new debates, and questions the idea of ‘the sacred’ in architecture. For the most part, it manages to do this without pontificating or becoming vague, both of which are pitfalls not only of religious discussions in the arts, but of interdisciplinary engagement in general. Constructing the Ineffableis divided into three broad categories: ‘Architecture and the Sacred’, ‘Precedents’ and ‘Perspectives’ and the diversity of its outlook is both a strength and a weakness.

In the book’s first section, Scully says that just 15 years ago there would have been a very limited, skeptical concept of sacred space among most architects and academics. However, he claims that today there is an ‘ever-increasing urgency’ to discuss these questions due to increasing fundamentalism in Europe and shifting research priorities. Scully wonders, with palpable anxiety, ‘What is sacred to us today?’ Karsten Harries partially answers this through a process of elimination and provocation. He says: ‘The sacred needs architecture and architecture needs the sacred.’

Drawing on rich philosophical resources, Harries explains that the sacred depends on history and memory and that many contemporary structures – which he refers to as ‘decorated sheds’ (with a nod to Learning from Las Vegas) –are devoid of meaning. He asks: ‘Is the task of architecture not to wrest place from space in order to provide not just the body, but the whole human being, with shelter? Architecture needs the sacred if it is not to wither.’ Miroslav Volf, who writes on memory and space, argues that only architecture that becomes a site of sacred memory, shaping the identity of individuals and becoming part of a community’s history, can be considered sacred.Emilie Townes’ reading of sacred sites through architectural theorist Mircea Eliade’s concept of ‘the centre’ as a sacred trope is innovative, but the ideas become tangled in her unpunctuated mixture of poetry and prose.

‘Precedents: Constructed and Imagined’ presents four diverse chapters focusing on the Modernist legacies of Mies van der Rohe and Tadao Ando. Kenneth Frampton makes an excellent case for Ando’s ‘secular spirituality’, an apparent paradox that is reconciled through Frampton’s nuanced investigation of Ando’s approach to natural phenomena, especially light.

Most architects featured in the project-focused section of the book directly appeal to the effects and spatial manipulation of light as an indication of a structure’s sacred qualities. Richard Meier’s Jubilee Church in Rome (2000) and Fariborz Sahba’s Bahá’i Lotus Temple in New Delhi (1986) both give iconic status to light. Stephen Holl’s Chapel of St Ignatius at Seattle University (2007) began as ‘Seven Bottles of Light in a Stone Box’. Eck explains, ‘It is only through the lens of architecture that we are able to orient ourselves to the grandeur. It is through the windows that we are able to see in ways our unfettered gaze cannot comprehend. Architects do not, in that sense, construct the sacred.’ Here, an ‘ineffable’ structure becomes a frame for the sacred.

The reception of each architectural project is revealing as, writes Moshe Safdie, ‘Symbolic associations are completely personal, not the subject of imposed narrative.’ Peter Eisenman, who designed Berlin’s vast Holocaust Memorial, began with two concepts: being lost, and the impossibility of language. Yet, a rabbi asked Eisenman, ‘What is the meaning of the number of the pillars [in the memorial]?’ Eisenman responded that there were 2711 due to size and security restrictions; there were originally meant to be 4300. The rabbi asked Eisenman if he knew what 2711 meant. The architect replied that he did not and the rabbi said: ‘2711 is the number of pages in the modern Talmud.’

In his essay, architecture critic Paul Goldberger says it is important not to confuse the sacred with a crude ‘wow factor’. He says, ‘50 years ago when Ronchamp was new, unusual space, complex space – mysterious space – it was in and of itself a signifier of the sacred. Given the technology that is available to us, it would seem inevitable that what constitutes our sense of truly ineffable space will have to change in an age in which every airport aspires to being Ronchamp.’ If it is to be ineffable, architecture must strive to maintain a sense of mystery. n

Ayla Lepine lectures on architectural history at the Courtauld Institute and Warwick University

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