Snyder Sanctuary_Newman Architects_ Photo by Robert Benson

Campus Sacred Spaces Are Changing

In a time of global unrest, rising intolerance, and, some might argue, increasing secularization, is the campus chapel relevant anymore? Might it disappear altogether? As it turns out, campus sacred space is transforming to play a more important role as many universities focus on educating their students to be more globally aware.

In her 2014 book White Elephants on Campus: The Decline of the University Chapel in America, 1920–1960, architectural historian Margaret Grubiak argues that campus sacred space has been morphing for more than a century. She notes that with “the rise of science, the German research model of higher education, and the end of a centuries-long tradition of compulsory chapel,” universities in the early 20th century reassessed the once-prominent placement of campus chapels, especially at institutions affiliated with organized religion. In the postwar years, Grubiak points out, there was a shift to the construction of nondenominational chapels primarily at institutions that were not or no longer affiliated with a faith tradition. For example, Eero Saarinen’s diminutive Kresge Chapel at MIT and Mies van der Rohe’s “god box” at the Illinois Institute of Technology were smaller, nondenominational spaces with scant religious symbolism. Instead of fulfilling their traditional role at the institution’s “center,” Grubiak points out, these nondenominational facilities were pushed to the edge of campuses.

But today, college-age students are at the forefront of changes in the way people think about religion or being religious. Many young people now see organized religion as a problem, not a solution—a force in the world that divides people, that is intolerant, that builds walls around ideological camps at war with each other. Surveys from such respected research organizations as Pew, Gallup, and Trinity College all show a precipitous drop in the percentage of young people who are members of an organized religion. Yet the number is growing of those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. They are looking for ways to be spiritual that value dialogue, understanding, empathy, and authenticity. Young people want to make a difference in a shrinking world, where individuals of different nationalities, cultures, and faith traditions live amid others. We need new models for how sacred space on campus might be shared among all faiths (not just Christian denominations), the way they might support inter-religious and multicultural dialogue, and how they can foster the education of globally aware students. A few examples come to mind.

Wellesley College’s Multifaith Center was designed by KieranTimberlake, in collaboration with Victor Kazanjian, dean of religious and spiritual life at Wellesley College at the time the center was conceived, designed, and constructed for the basement of its late–19th century Houghton Chapel. Wellesley’s “Beyond Tolerance” program focuses on the diversity of religious traditions that the student body represents (including those who considered themselves “spiritual” outside of any tradition) and has an educational component as well. According to Kazanjian, the focus is on interreligious understanding and dialogue intended to equip students “with the intellectual and practical skills necessary to be citizens of a religiously diverse world.” 

Wellesley Multifaith Center, designed by Kieran Timberlake, in collaboration with Victor Kazanjian. The heart of the building is a flexible multi faith worship space that can accommodate different faith traditions and programs. Photo by Haikin Photography LLC.


KieranTimberlake transformed this program into architecture by transforming Houghton’s dark basement into the Multifaith Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. The literal and spiritual heart of the center is a flexible, multifaith worship space that can accommodate different faith traditions and programs. Surrounding this are smaller spaces dedicated to the disciplines of prayer, meditation, and study, which are common to all religious traditions. The doors of these smaller spaces are aligned with the central space, and they’re arranged in an ambulatory way—another common element of sacred spaces around the world. Along with these small areas is a larger communal space for sharing meals, music, art, and intercultural encounters. 

Another multifaith model as a setting for interreligious and multicultural dialogue is the Numen Lumen Pavilion at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, designed by Newman Architects. (Elon consulted with Kazanjian on the lessons learned at Wellesley.) Elon was founded by the Christian Church (which later became the United Church of Christ), but it chose to build a multifaith center, according to Howard Hebel, an architect with Newman, as part of its larger mission to create an academic community that “transforms mind, body, and spirit” to prepare its graduates to be global citizens with respect for human differences. 

The pavilion is a freestanding multifaith center at the heart of campus, not at its edge, yet it also reaches out to the town community to provide a place of dialogue; the pavilion’s circular sacred space is positioned near a road that is a town thoroughfare. Between the entrance and the sacred space is an elegantly detailed display area for portable icons used for different services. Typically, such icons are haphazardly and unceremoniously stored in broom closets. Hebel says that here the intention was to create something highly visible to celebrate the icons’ importance and beauty. Its prominent location along the main pathway positions the icons to educate and inspire when not in liturgical use. A significant portion of the building is dedicated to spaces for prayer, meditation, and study—a setting of multireligious expression, dialogue, and sharing for believers, nonbelievers, and searchers alike. 

One final example, also designed by Newman, is Snyder Sanctuary at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. The design itself is a meditation on how architecture can bring people together, in community, instead of driving them apart. This pristine white space, with its polished concrete floor and natural light, is defined by seven tall walls that spiral around a center point. The concrete walls create a chamber permeated by channels of light, direct and luminous, that trail through the space and across the planes that contain it throughout the day. These channels of light are admitted through slivers of space between the walls. At night, the channels transmit the illuminated interior, visible from across the campus and an adjacent thoroughfare, a beacon that cannot help but communicate hope. 

Snyder’s walls both literally and symbolically lean upon each other, providing a web of support among the ensemble of planes. These concrete planes were lifted into place; the sanctuary construction embodies the value of uplift, of elevation. The metaphor is profound: We all need to help support each other (particularly in times of weakness or doubt). Here, the architecture exhibits a certain tenderness, inviting us to see “the other” as a potential alley. Sometimes we’re strong enough to take another’s burden, other times we seek the reinforcement of our fellow human beings. Within the bearing of one upon the other, we find the human spirit at its most powerful.

These examples indicate the evolving nature of the campus multifaith center as it reflects two critical developments: one, the growth of a demographic, especially present on college campuses, that is unaffiliated with organized religion yet pursues a personal interest in the spiritual and searches for the common denominators across the world’s faith traditions; and two, the growing acceptance and intellectual curiosity of people of different faiths—or even no faith—of those who come different cultural contexts. These two global developments and the buildings evolving from them might transform the nature of sacred space beyond the campus. They might be the harbingers of eventual changes in the conception of sacred space in every culture and every demographic. 

Featured image: Lynn University Synder Sanctuary, designed by Newman Architects. The building’s space is defined by seven tall walls that literally and symbolically lean upon each other, providing a web of support among the ensemble of planes. Photo by Robert Benson. 


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