Ominous Clouds Over the James Turrell Skyscape Twilight Epiphany - Rice University Houston Texas

The Architecture of “Thin Places” and How to Design Them

What’s a “thin place,” and what makes it so? These are just a couple of the questions that a new book, Thin Place Design: Architecture of the Numinous (Routledge), by Phillip James Tabb, sets out to answer. Tabb is an architect and an emeritus architecture professor who has also written books about biophilia, sustainability, and urban design. Places that are “thin” offer experiences outside of the everyday—they might be extraordinary or blissfully serene, restorative, or healing. They are often mysterious, thought-provoking, awe-inspiring. 

Based on his own extensive exploration of thin places, Tabb reflects that they’re often “where a sense of self is dissolved and I experienced a sensory unity with the nature around me.” Nature abounds with such experiences. Great examples of natural thin places are the rim of the Grand Canyon, the great waterfalls of Yosemite National Park, or the vaulted Rainbow Bridge in Utah.  And it isn’t just a matter of scale, notes Tabb. Even small-scale, intimate environments can be charged with transcendence: swimming inside the cool interior of a grotto, gazing into a campfire amid a forest draped in shadow.

Tabb is most interested in ways of creating thin places through architecture—how would we design them? He mentions several historic examples, including Stonehenge in the UK and the Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. These places typically have a strong sense of history and of the past. Most everyone reading this has had a thin-place architectural experience: perhaps a visit to Wright’s Fallingwater, where the house seems to fuse with nature, or even the quiet respite of an empty, echoey, candle-filled chapel in the middle of a bustling city. These moments might have set you on the road to study architecture. Many architects carry inside their heads a bucket list of places they feel a desire to experience; others perform pilgrimages to such places—large and small—to recharge their architectural batteries. One shares these examples with students (if you’re lucky enough to teach). All are in some form the “thin places” that Tabb writes of, and his goal is to help designers create “more informed, spirited and soulful architecture.” These environments are, potentially, better for us. We know that awe-inspiring or serene environmental experiences can be transformative. Tabb lists some of the health benefits: stress reduction, lowered hypertension, sharpened cognitive abilities and focus, increased healing rates. 

But how do these places function as transcendent experiences? Tabb’s complex explanation is a bit long-winded and unconvincing; such places are “spiritual experiential thresholds” where “connections to the sacred are more likely to occur.” If you’re not a believer in “the sacred” or in a spiritual realm, you might find this description lacking. However, he also notes that thin place environments are accessible to everyone “and make us feel as though we are part of something greater than ourselves.” So, no need to believe in sacredness in a religious sense. That these places and the experiences they invoke give us “opportunities to step outside of ourselves and our everyday lives” is something we all can relate to. And why are they “thin”? Tabb believes that such places are akin to “veils” that exist “between the earthly world we live in and the heavenly spiritual world that possesses an energy that is qualitatively different.” If you don’t believe in a spiritual realm or the energy of the universe, this book won’t convince you. New York Times writer Eric Weiner, whom Tabb quotes, has a better description of what such places offer: the “Infinite Whatever.” Luckily, Tabb doesn’t proselytize. He’s interested in helping us to understand and create architecture that is transcendent, in big and small ways.



One element that the author doesn’t explore enough is how thin places function in regard to time. Thin places might reveal themselves as transcendent only at certain periods of the day, month, or year. Perhaps the experiences come and go, or are stronger or weaker depending on the time of day, the weather, the atmosphere, who you’re with, etc. They’re better described as “thin moments.” Tabb intimates this might be the case after all. He writes that the full power or potential of a thin place experience requires time (more is better) and a contemplative approach. Many thin places have become tourist attractions, Tabb grouses, which makes it harder “to get a quiet moment alone in order to have solitary withdrawal and a centering experience.” 

Tabb presents a detailed list of 20 thin place “patterns,” by far the book’s most valuable feature. This extensive list allows architects and designers hoping to create architecture with transcendent possibilities a checklist of design elements to focus on—although including every pattern isn’t necessary to create a thin place, nor does it guarantee a desired thin place result. These 20 patterns can be grouped under five overarching themes:

  • Transition: passages, feeling centered in a space, connected to it through human scale, thin place spatial boundaries;
  • Nature: its presence in a thin place, connecting to celestial elements, carefully framed views, inclusion of symbols;
  • Spatial Aspects: geometric ordering systems, descending into or climbing through space, quality of space)
  • Experiential Aspects: orientation, function, scale, materiality; and
  • Terrestrial Qualities: earth elements such as fire and water, color derived from nature, luminosity from natural sources, opportunities for ceremony.


Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel in eastern France. Photo: Phillip Tabb.


Tabb then uses these patterns to evaluate thin place case studies that make up the bulk of the remainder of the book. He admits the grading is subjective on his part, so a grain of salt is in order. Case studies include what are described as “extraordinary examples of architecture and urban design”—along with small-scale, everyday instances—from all over the world. There are 10 in the architecture and urban settings category, among them Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel, Philip Johnson’s Rothko Chapel, and James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace in Houston, which scores the highest in terms of its thin place potential. Tabb also includes one of his own buildings as a case study—but one should never include one’s own project as an “extraordinary example of architecture” unless you have a portfolio like Peter Zumthor’s. The “everyday” category includes seven case studies, among them a birthday cake ablaze with candles and the author’s own backyard garden. Each is graded according to how well it scores on a scale of 1 to 5. 

An example of an everyday thin space. Photo by Phillip Tabb.


The grading is not objective, but this book—as flawed as it is, filled with typos, missing words, and repetitive text—provides insight into architecture’s power to lift us from quotidian existence to a glimpse of the otherworldly, and the methods of divining it. Each of us has no doubt had a thin place experience. In an otherwise dreary built world of often excruciatingly bad buildings, that’s something worth exploring and promoting. And it’s a likely reminder of why and how we fell in love with architecture in the first place.

Featured image: James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyscape is one of the book’s highest-rated “thin” places. Photo via Rice University.


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