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What Is Sacred Architecture in an Increasingly Secular Time?

The idea of “sacred architecture” is problematic. Architecture can mimic a style, be designed to a historic aesthetic, or exist solely in the mind of the designer, but no style or time in history is inherently connected to the divine. And clearly there are few, if any, “sacred architects.” Sacred architecture is not under the control of the architect, but the experience of the people who encounter it.

Religion is in free fall in 21st century America. Following Europe’s example a few generations ago, we’re experiencing a cultural detachment from organized religion. The number of atheists in America has doubled in the last decade. The trend is not to godlessness, but to uncertainty. The Pew Research Center reports that 63% of American adults identify as Christian, but that’s down from 78% in 2007. And in that same period, the percentage of adults who say they have no religion has risen to 29% from 16%. We’re leaving organized religion, but we’re not becoming feral or hedonistic. Pew found that 81% say there is something spiritual beyond the natural world, even if we cannot see it.

I attended a funeral recently. It was held in an immaculately restored Catholic church. The lighting was bright, the painted icons at the chancel of the church were crisp, the 12 stations of the cross were nobly alternating with the traditional stained-glass windows, the barrel vaults were perfectly painted with faux coffered ceilings, even the light thumb rest at the top edge of the pews was quietly delightful.


Was that building sacred?

Duncan Stroik, architect, educator, and author of The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal, sees architecture in the lead of evoking the sacred. “Even though as a medium it is abstract, architecture can articulate the truths of faith like its sister arts of music, painting and sculpture. To accomplish this architects use archetypal forms such as porticos, bell towers, colonnades, and vaulting, all of which have developed layers of meaning over the millenia.”

Stroik’s faith in the architectonic nature of expressing and thus eliciting the sacred was fully realized in the church I visited. However, when the nave filled up, the music washing over us, the people and their words changed the reality of our world. It’s the humans that make places holy in their connection beyond themselves, and beyond the space itself. Architects want to control how we live in what they design. And they do make lovely and depressing places. But they can’t control, let alone determine, what is sacred. 

Notre Dame may have been wrecked by fire, but God’s grace was not defiled.

Theology and architectural theory have a lot in common. We’re thrilled by realities that we do not understand revealed by our experiences —so we try, very hard, to justify those reactions. Religious faith and architectural theory are how we address what we experience but do not fully understand.

We’re limited and liberated by the gifts we are given. Having spent my first 13 years growing up in a classic American mid century suburban idyll, I knew church. But a decade of high school and college ended visitation. What I didn’t know was that the reason “places of worship” were built was not just social convention and control. I sought and came to know our common reality of connection to a greater reality beyond ourselves. I found church again, out of choice.

Going to church, recognizing faith was in my life, I was asked by others to use my experience and gifts to help create sacred spaces. Designing in the hope of touching the sense of spiritual connection is both daunting and natural. We cannot deny that hard spiritual connection every one of us feels, even without architecture to harbor it, despite the trappings and expectations that once defined our culture.

Architects know how to simulate the “porticos, bell towers, colonnades, and vaulting” of our traditions, even the modern versions. The recipes of style are applied to the vast majority of what we build, and architects are complicit in the cynical manipulation of sentimental associations, whether it’s propping up neoclassical awe 1,600 years after the fall of Rome or making spaceships of our buildings that promise a journey to the heavens for all who join the ride.

When you don’t rely on the replication of history or its utter rejection, you’re left with yourself. We don’t know the reasons or facts around why we exist, but we’ve all experienced the ecstatic apprehension of beauty.


What architects find harderto justify, teach, or laudis trusting the reactive truth humans all feel when they experience buildings. When you don’t rely on the replication of history or its utter rejection, you’re left with yourself. We don’t know the fundamental reasons or facts around why we exist, but we’ve all experienced the ecstatic apprehension of beauty.

The architect and theoretician Christopher Alexander spent a life in faith, but he knew how the changes in our culture were impacting our perception of sacred space. In his 2016 essay Making the Garden,” he writes about the growing indifference to religion, especially in the architectural establishment: “The path of architecture thus leads inexorably towards a renewed understanding of God. This is an understanding true within the canon of every religion, not connected with any one religion in particular, something which therefore moves us beyond the secularism and strife that has torn the world for more than a thousand years.”

If architects can have faith in the gifts given to us, rather than rationalize and justify them in manipulations and theory, we can discover the beauty in sacred space. 

Religion is failing because our culture understands that there is more in our lives than faith in our constructions—whether its places of worship or the institutions we create. Architecture has meaning only if the meaning of our humanity is at its genesis. Finding beauty is harder than defining it. Listening to the irrational joy of the sacred a faith beyond ourselvesis the challenge of this changing time.

Images by the author.


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