Photo by Ackaradech Paludkhwa

Secular Spirituality in Architecture

The world is becoming more and more secular. The role of religion keeps diminishing, and this might lead one to believe that so does the role of spirituality. This is simply not so. Study after study shows that while people have largely stopped going to church and have started questioning the core dogmas of religion, they still believe in God or a god, whatever that might mean to them personally. In his book On Sacred Space, Julio Bermudez talks about how ‘our contemporary civilization has exacerbated the feelings of existential emptiness and meaninglessness’. The author asserts that the need for ‘spiritual’ or ‘transcendent’ space could not be more relevant. [br]

So if people’s need for the spiritual is ever-present, how is architecture to satisfy that need in the modern, secular world? After all, don’t all sacred buildings rely on religious iconography and symbolism in order to invoke a spiritual atmosphere? Isn’t it only the act of worshipping that goes on inside a building that renders it spiritual? [br]

Well, no. While it is true that any shed can become a chapel when a congregation gathers for worship inside, there is a much more fundamental principle that produces sacred architecture. As the famous Religious Historian Mircea Eliade has noted, at its core, a sacred building strives to become a model and centre of the universe (imago mundi and axis mundi respectively, in Eliade’s language). Its builders strive to reduce the world to a series of abstractions and reconstruct it in the form of a building. The ultimate goal of this is not to worship one deity or another, but to create a space where a person can contemplate his or her own existence in the world. The aim is a sort of non-religious spirituality that is concerned with the mystery of being itself, not with myths and pantheons. More existential than religious. This approach is a sort of shortcut to a transcendental feeling that avoids the murky waters of religion and Tadao Ando has adopted it in his work. [br]

Ando’s architecture makes sense of the world in two primary ways: it uses ideal geometry and it incorporates the elements of nature into the design. To illustrate this point, let’s look at Ando’s Meditation Space in Paris, perhaps his most condensed statement on what makes architecture spiritual. The building’s very purpose is to be a sacred space for all cultures. To ‘transcend ethnic, cultural, and religious’ differences, as it’s brief originally stated. In Ando’s own words, the space has no other function but to be a ‘refuge for the spirit, a place where you can think about your own existence.’ This already sounds very much like Eliade’s own idea about what a sacred building should be. So how does Ando’s Meditation Space attempt such an atmosphere of universal spirituality? [br]

First of all, it uses ideal geometry. The Meditation space is a perfect square in section and a perfect circle in plan. Already the basic geometry of the work hints at a metaphorical dimension to it. The circle and square are an ancient symbolic pair, complementary symbols of the physical (square) and metaphysical (circle).  The building is a small cylindrical volume with a surface area of 33 m2. Its size and circular plan make sure that whenever a person enters it, they inevitably find themselves at its centre. Inside, the space is dark. Subdued light seeps in from a circular opening above that cannot escape comparison with the dome of the sky. The scheme is clear: a volume of darkness with light coming from above and the human at its centre. By simply using geometry and placement, Ando already produces a quality about the building that lends itself to contemplative interpretation. [br]

To complete the image of the building as a model of the world, Ando adds to its geometry an abstraction of each of the four Platonic elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Water exists quite literally on site. The building is surrounded by a shallow pool whose sound adds a meditative ambience to the place. Earth is manifest in the exposed concrete of the structure and the Hiroshima stone that tiles the building’s centre and surrounding pool. Air is present as a steady current that naturally arises between the two opposing openings that lead to and out of the cylindrical shell. Finally, fire is present in its more abstracted form of light coming from the openings on the ground level and the ceiling slits. With the incorporation of the four elements, however abstracted, Ando’s Meditation Space becomes a complete abstraction of the world. Whether the visitor is conscious of it or not, this approach is meant to encourage contemplation about his or her own existence in the universe. [br]

It is the clarity and simplicity of Ando’s Meditation Space that makes it so useful to those who strive to preserve architecture’s spiritual qualities into the 21st century. The building is a textbook example of spirituality without religion. Coming back to Eliade’s original formulation, a sacred building is one that ultimately reaffirms the feeling in those who enter it that they are alive, that they play a part in the eternal mystery of Being. Spiritual architecture reminds you that you are alive. [br]