Notes on Sacred Space

by E. A. Sovik

Dr. Sövik, a fellow of the American Institute of Architecture, is a principal in Sövik Mathre Sathrum Quanbeck, Architects and Planners, Northfield, Minnesota.

This article appeared in the Christian Century March 31, 1982, p. 363. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


If beauty — not a particular beauty, but any beautiful thing — is a metaphor of the sacred, then there is no such thing as a uniquely “religious” or ecclesiastical idiom in architecture or in the other arts. Beauty evokes in us the sense of the holy. So artists and priests are companions in every religion.

Most buildings that are architectural prize-winners when new go unnoticed 25 years later. But some continue to be admired. A few years ago the American Institute of Architecture began to give one award each year to a 25-year-old structure, and in 1976 the choice for this award was Christ Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, the last work of Eliel Saarinen. When the church was new, it attracted wide attention because it seemed so daring a departure from the conventional Gothic or Georgian style. By 1976 the fame of the architect’s name had dimmed, the novelty of the architecture had paled, the technical and the liturgical sophistication were passe. Is it possible that the great remaining virtue that the jury recognized in the Christ Lutheran building could be something called “sacredness”?

The quality that people think of as “sacredness” sometimes accrues to places because they have been the sites of particularly important historical events. Cities like Jerusalem and Mecca are called “holy cities.” And to the faithful of any congregation, their own church buildings are commonly thought of as “sacred.” Even the most commonplace church building can become venerable in someone’s mind, so “holy” that its destruction, or even changes made in it, are seen as sacrilege.

It’s probably fruitless to analyze the attribution of holiness in this way. In any case, an architect has no control over the kind of sacredness that a place acquires after the design is finished. If he or she wants to make what can be called a sacred space, the problem has nothing to do with age or with personal or social events. And yet it is clear that a place of worship ought to supply spaces that invite people into the presence of the Other, and are thus consonant with acts of worship. But are there architectural qualities that evoke an intuition of holiness? If so, what might they be?

For part of what follows, I owe a debt to Rudolf Otto’s book The Idea of the Holy (Oxford University Press, 1958). Otto was, as were many people when he was writing, a devotee of Gothic architecture, and paid homage to it in his book. In his analysis of religion, Otto identifies three universal and elemental aspects: the devotion to truth or reality, the commitment to an ethical position and the awareness of the Mysterium Tremendum.

The last is the most memorable perception. Religion attempts to deal with the ineffable, unknowable, transcendent Other, which we perceive not through reason, but through intuition. Religion focuses on the mystery that is at once awesome, transcendent and fascinating as well as immanent. If we are to deal with this mystery, we must find a symbol for it. And I think that we have only one symbol available in human experience: namely, beauty.

Not a particular beauty, not just the beauty of the “dim religious light,” but all beauty. For beauty is also a mystery -- ineffable, unknowable but perceivable, remote but fascinating. We sense it, we do not deduce it. It is an experience, not a rational conclusion. The beautiful thing invites us into a state of wonder or awe, and if we are receptive, this lesser mystery can point, as symbols point, to the greater mystery, the Mysterium Tremendum. Otto’s volume -- like most of theology -- although it deals with the idea of the holy, cannot evoke in us the sense of the holy. Nor do other treatises on the subject. But beauty can. And I suppose this is the reason that priest and artist are found to be companions in every religion.

If an architect wishes to make a particular environment a symbol of the holy, it is absolutely required that the place be one of beauty. People who have undertaken to build temples or shrines or church buildings have always held this to be true. If we assume that the symbol of the holy is not a particular beauty, but beauty of any sort, then it is not surprising that we can love equally places as diverse as Chartres and Vierzehnheiligen, the Old Ship Meeting House and Christ Lutheran Church. And it is not surprising that Christians could adopt the Parthenon and the Pantheon for use as places of worship, and that Muslims could turn the Church of Santa Sophia into a mosque. Those buildings were not ideal for the uses of the religious groups that adopted them, and they certainly had no acquired sacredness for those groups. But the beauty of the places was convincing.

Nor is it surprising that religious groups have found places of exceptional natural beauty congenial to religious activity. Sometimes such places have been chosen for temple and church building sites -- as, for instance, the oldest Japanese shrine, Ise; or Mont St. Michel in France; or Delphi in Greece. Even the pastor who takes the youth group on a retreat into the country looks for a place of beauty -- a park, mountaintop or seashore.

In the art and artifacts associated with the sacred, we search for beauty, too. And again it is immensely diverse, not of a particular style. Gregorian chant and Isaac Watts and the Salve Regina are all associated with the holy. Visually, the span is similarly broad, ranging from the sweetness of Donatello to African masks to “the beauty that verges on terror,” in Rilke’s phrase.

One of the byways into which designers have frequently strayed is what might be called “mystification.” In the urgent sense that they must somehow deal with mystery, in their intention to speak the unspeakable, architects have introduced devices and details into their church buildings that they would not use in “secular” projects. Hidden light sources, twilight darkness, exceptional opulence (like gold Mexican reredos) or capricious structures (like the “Freeway Church” in Florence or the work of Antonio Gaudí in Barcelona) are used. Occasionally these things contribute convincingly to the beauty of a project. But the merely mysterious can be resolved like the mystery of a detective story; darkness is penetrable; the merely exotic can become tiresome. The really beautiful thing, on the other hand, is like the Mysterium Tremendum: its mystery grows: as we contemplate it.

The affectations of “mystification,” because affectations are short on candor, are also inconsistent with another of the essential qualities of religion that Otto identifies: the search for the real and true. The devotion to truth or reality is not the exclusive domain of the religious person; the philosopher or metaphysician is also concerned with truth. The religionist is usually willing to accept the witness of the intuition as well as reason in his or her search for truth; and every religion proposes to deal with the authentic, to avoid illusion, the artificial and the superficial, to go beyond appearances to the real.

If an architect is to be faithful to this objective, to provide an environment that encourages the serious search for truth and is a symbol of that search, the direction of one’s work is not difficult to prescribe, though it may be hard to accomplish. He or she needs to avoid the artificial, the illusory and the idiosyncratic. The quality that architects call “honesty” has been one of the touchstones of the modern movement in architecture in its reaction against the artifices of the 19th century. And one does find it superbly exemplified in the work of some leaders of the movement. But most of the architecture of recent generations is less “real” by far than is the heritage of earlier centuries. Among the historical church buildings, the early Romanesque, the Cistercian monasteries and the early New England meetinghouses express this “submission to what is real” most convincingly. Christ Lutheran joins that group.

One of the attractions of so-called “vernacular” architecture -- such as grain silos, factories and barns -- is its ingenuousness. It’s possible that engineers do better nowadays than architects; they try for craft instead of art and don’t get trapped into artiness. Suspension bridges are superior examples. They use materials forthrightly, but they also deal with a subtler aspect of truth; the catenary curve of the cable line is a near-perfect reflection of the way gravity really acts on weight. So our intuitive admiration of the form is a mixture of respect for the grandeur or size and a response to the faithful reflection of physical fact. The complexities of technical logic are matched with a kind of primitive perception, and the combination is awesome. The same factors exist in the medieval use of masonry, and doubtless supply a part of our delight in the cathedrals.

Anybody who supposes it is easy to be “honest” is mistaken. The world of building materials and building methods is full of deceits -- low-cost things imitating the appearance of authentic ones and conventions that make virtues of illusion, for instance. The tension between desire and cost seduces us. Let me give one or two examples. An opening in a wall that we call a window used to be filled with transparent or translucent materials that were a screen clearly dividing the interior from the exterior. Then rolled glass and polished glass became available in large sheets, and the often-stated intent now is to make the screen invisible -- a kind of pretense that there is no difference between the interior and the exterior.

Mies van der Rohe was once asked to design a church. He refused the commission because the bishop asked him to set the place of worship on the second story. Mies, whose sensibilities were refined and in a way puritanical, believed that a serious enterprise like worship should be physically grounded. His fidelity to principle is renowned. Few architects or building committees are as firm or perceptive.

The designer who tries faithfully to make a proper symbol of Otto’s third element of religion accepts a similarly difficult role, unsupported by much of church building tradition and current practice.

All religions take ethical positions. The range of those positions is as broad as the distance between the Confucian ethic of propriety and the Christian ethic of love. If we take historical church buildings as symbols of the Christian ethic, we cannot always read from them a commitment to love. For instance, there has probably been no structure more symbolic of authority than St. Peter’s in Rome. Hundreds or thousands of other prestigious monuments, beautiful as they may be, provide similar images.

If church buildings are to be symbols of love, they should be quite different. Buildings can be described in the same terms as people can: they can be noble, trivial, awkward, vigorous, charming; they can be domineering, imposing, boring, peremptory. A church building that seeks consciously to induce what used to be called the “mood of worship” is suspect because it seeks to manipulate. If a building is to be an image of love, the words that might be used to describe it would be words like gracious, companionable, generous, strong, gentle and hospitable. There are buildings of this sort, but not many of them appear in our cities or among the structures that attract the attention of the professional and public press. The current scene projects the image not of love but of self-indulgence, or self-assertion; not a little of it is simply dull without being either humble or gentle.

If we look for examples of the architecture of love, we will doubtless find them most readily in domestic structures. This is not surprising; most people try very hard to make their homes images of hospitality. Frederick Debuyst, the Belgian Benedictine who has been one of the most perceptive voices for and critics of the new currents in church-building, has often used the word “domestic” in pointing to the virtues of the new buildings he admires. He is proposing not that they look just like houses but that their scale, their rhythms, their details suggest habitation instead of monument. Spaces need not be small to be humane, but it takes great care to make them so. Architects sometimes use the word “haptic” to describe architecture that seems to invite the presence of people and supplies a kind of continual conversation with its inhabitants (rather than addressing them oratorically). It is probable that the fondness now so general for the buildings of a hundred years ago stems in part from the fact that, whatever their faults, there is much of the haptic -- the touchable -- in them.

Just as it is a privilege simply to be in the presence of a really good person, so one finds both comfort and stimulation in simply being in the presence of a good building, whether one has anything to do there or not. One way of defining good architecture is to ask oneself whether a building is a good place to be when one has nothing to do.

This kind of understanding presents some interesting corollaries. If beauty -- not a particular beauty, but any beautiful thing -- is a metaphor of the sacred, then there is no such thing as a uniquely “religious” or ecclesiastical idiom in architecture or in the other arts. We are not then surprised that the Messiah is not a generically different sort of music from one of Handel’s “secular” oratorios. We are not surprised that Rembrandt’s landscapes and portraits differ only in subject matter from his work on biblical themes. And it is clear that places other than dedicated church buildings can be perceived as good places to assemble for worship. The early Christians recognized this fact when they were content to worship in homes, and later, when they adopted the secular basilica as the place of worship. The Puritan meetinghouses very consciously dissolved the barrier between sacred and secular, and demonstrated for us that it is beauty, authenticity and hospitality, not a particular style, that are the metaphors of the sacred.

And are beautiful “secular” buildings appropriate for religious services, the occasions when people by intention open themselves to the consciousness of God? I think so. I can well imagine Christians gathering with complete joy in places as diverse as the Great Hall at Elsinore Castle, or the Imperial Audience Hall at Kyoto, or the central dining room at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

Another issue develops from the perception of the sacred potentials of the secular: the responsibility of the Christian with respect to noncultic architecture. If a Christian takes the position that ugliness, inhumanity and artificiality are wrong in the place of worship, they are also wrong elsewhere. The burden Christians must undertake is to make not only church buildings into metaphors of the holy, but all architecture for which they have responsibility. If it is true that secular buildings can be vehicles of grace, then they ought to be. Anything less is a denial of the faith. In addition to our church buildings, our factories and stores and workplaces, our cities in general ought to be portals of transcendence.