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Designing Sacred Space

Although 17th century rationalism drove a significant wedge between matter and spirit, it never quite eliminated the symbiotic relationship between liturgy and architecture.

Roberto Chiotti, an architect with a graduate degree in theology, says “there is definitely a connection between what we believe and what we build.” Sweeping theological changes for greater democratization during Vatican II affected liturgical forms. Among some of the changes, the altar changed shape from rectangular to cubic, was pulled out from the back wall to enable the priest to face the congregation, mass was said in the vernacular rather than Latin, and the confessional was replaced with a reconciliation room.

Probably the most famous example of post-Vatican II liturgical changes is the design of St. Mary’s Church in Red Deer, Alberta. It was native architect Douglas Cardinal’s first building, several years before his commission of the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, by Pierre Trudeau. St. Mary’s was an “inspirational experience” for him. “I am always inspired by the passion and vision of my patron. Father Mercks, an Oblate Father from Germany, was very learned. We spent a great deal of time talking, about philosophy, architecture, and church history. We looked at what the emphasis of the early church was, and about the importance of the altar and its true meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice.” That importance had been lost over the centuries with overdone backdrops and Father Mercks wanted to get back to basics. Many discussions, and many sketches later, Cardinal and Mercks agreed on a shape (square and strong to reflect Jesus’ nature), a material (unpolished stone, to symbolize the rock of the church, and Jesus’ humble lifestyle), and placement (in the center of the space around which people could gather).

The church was finally built in 1967, two years after Mercks and Cardinal first starting working together. Every aspect of the space was examined in the light of theological relevance, and architectural doability. Drawing the perfect amount of visual attention to the altar, through light from the roof, and yet not distract the eye at all, for example, created all sorts of problems and at the time computers were not widely used –Cardinal had to borrow one in Chicago. “It was a major structural challenge to do the roof the way I wanted in order to reflect what was needed theologically,” Cardinal remembers. What resulted was a sacred space that has become one of the icons of Canadian architecture.

Vatican II also heralded an age of experimentation that was not always so successful though the intentions were good. To diminish hierarchical lines and ensure greater participation architects employed the fan-shape, which Chiotti says is one of the worst acoustically and never really resolved the separation of the clergy from the laity.” An Oakville church he is currently designing in the square features a sanctuary against one of the walls, with the altar projected into the congregation. A pyramidal roof still hearkens to the cosmic dome of heaven theme inherited from the early church, and skylights punctuate the apex of the pyramid to allow shafts of light to come in. It is a simple space, that communicates a kind of cosmic stillness, and yet a place that fully accommodates interaction.

In the Protestant camp, changes of a different nature, but no less significant, were being made. Sarah Hall, a stained glass artist who works on both sides of the great denominational divide. She believes that Protestants are reviewing their relationship with art. “It is understandable that Protestants railed against the external forms of the Church, with massive taxes and corruption at the local parish level, but we threw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Although there is little in the way of art at the Anglican Church of the Incarnation in Oakville there is a huge departure from traditional liturgical norms. The 250 subdivision residents had been meeting in a cafeteria before securing a triangle of land along busy Dorval Rd and hiring architect Steven Teeple. Working around the lot’s restrictions, Teeple was also mindful of the theological thrust. “They are a young parish with lots of children, and wanted a simple space, that would capitalize on the existing woodlot. In essence, they wanted a little church in the woods.” What they got is a non-traditional space that’s flexible enough to accommodate three different seating plans, a soaring roofline that touches on majesty, and large pivoting doors that connect the worship space to the outdoors, but traditional materials of cedar, stone, cement and glass that provide warmth and intimacy.

Demographics has played a big part in contemporary changes to theology, church structures and architecture. Put simply, fewer people are going to church, and there is less need for churches. Some churches like Eglinton-St. George’s United are a result of amalgamations. They sold one site, now slated for condo conversion, and infused the other with the budget for a redesign.

But there was a deeper need for inclusivity that became the driving force in the architectural changes. Apart from a physical need for barrier-free access, there was an emotional need for access, too. Oliphant describes the former church as a “fortress with castle-like roof, and massive doors. It was built in 1923 when the perception was that our God is a mighty fortress. But it’s a question of who are we? These days, we see God as immanent, and our church buildings need to reflect that. It needs to be more open and welcoming.” The parish hired Richard Vosko, an American Catholic priest and architectural consultant to advise them. “He talked about pews being like cribs, keeping people infantile,” Oliphant remembers. “He was very clear on the need to keep the pathways open into the church, both spiritual and physical.”

The church also hired Moffat and Black, an architectural firm with some prior experience in building and renovating church space, to implement the changes. Walter Moffat, who handled the conceptual process, was impressed with Oliphant’s desire for the church to be comfortable, accessible, and relevant: a smaller balcony so that people were together, chairs instead of pews, and a flexible chancel scheme.

Although inclusivity was the aim, somewhere between concept and implementation, it didn’t quite hit the mark. Most Protestant churches of a less hierarchical and classical nature tend to focus on the speaker, rather than the altar or the table; this results in the choir and ministers facing the congregation. Because they are raised up and behind the communion table, though, it separates them from the people. Oliphant, however, is still playing with the arrangements and intends to move the chancel set-up during Lent to the nave and reconfigure the chairs so they form a circle around it. This would effectively realize that goal of inclusivity and immanence.

In a recent redesign of the Loretto Sisters chapel near Niagara Falls, Chiotti strove to reflect not only the retreat’s geographic realities, but also its theological mission of environmental stewardship. In an attempt to connect religion and creation in this new way, the chapel in the round features a baptismal font that “departs from the rectangular box of its predecessor…instead, what emerges is asymmetrical, egg shaped and womb-like, a place to be in touch with the divine mother, the creator God, the word made flesh.” The altar is a 150-year-old tree stump, taken from the garden where the community’s foundress is buried. “It adds a feminine dimension rooted in the history of the order and in creation.”

Changes in liturgical architecture are not only for the benefit of the members, but also meant as a signpost to the surrounding community. Anyone, believer or not, should be able to walk into a church, says Chiotti, and recognize immediately what its primary focus is.

But in a culture that has closed its eyes and ears to a message they feel is largely irrelevant and predominantly exclusive, the medium may have to make a more forceful message.

And this is where the discussion can become heated. Steven Shloeder writes in his book Architecture in Communion, that what is worshipped in a culture, and that in the west, “public acts are commerce, consumption, work and entertainment.” How does the church strive to be relevant to a largely consumer society, by offering more of the same or something completely different?

Moffat feels that these days churches need to change their buildings as a survival tactic; with their backs against the wall with diminishing congregations, churches need to market themselves better. Architecture is one powerful way of saying come in. He remembers Oliphant’s desire that the church feel like a Starbucks, that people feel comfortable.

At Eglinton- St George’s, it’s working. The surrounding community is taking notice and responding – positively -- to the new user-friendly façade. Oliphant says people often stop in at night, people who have never darkened the door of a church. There is no cross outside but a much larger, glass opening, which has replaced the heavy wood doors, is a beacon of colourful light especially during long, cold, dark winter nights.

Though sliding attendance is a reminder that the church hasn’t been doing its job as well as it might, Chiotti sees the church’s mission of relevance as more about giving service than about recruiting new members. With government funds drying up, he says churches are expected to fill the gap. And for the most part, they are rising to the occasion with food banks, out of the cold programs, AIDs hospices and HIV healing masses, and so on.

At Chiotti’s home parish of Our Lady of Lourdes, located near the ethnically and religiously diverse St. Jamestown, the signposts are different but nonetheless there. Relevance to the community is manifested in a newly redesigned garden grotto which offers peace and solitude in the midst of urban hustle, and where “the statue of St. Bernadette could be a young woman of any ethnic background.”

Inside Our Lady of Lourdes, small alcove prayer areas attract people of all creeds. “Hindus frequently come here,” says Chiotti. “They are seeking a place to meditate or pray, and understand this is a place for it, that the space is sacred.”

In order to define sacred, you must distinguish between religious, liturgical and sacred space, says Vito Marziliano, pastor of All Saints’ parish, in Etobicoke, and part of the Sacred Art and Architecture Committee of the Toronto Catholic archdiocese. “Liturgical space is where the liturgical action takes place. Sacred space goes beyond that boundary. And religious space is that which is specific to a particular religious group.”

Within the Catholic Church, there is much ongoing discussion, reflection and research into the issue of architecture as theological symbol. “The door of a sacred space represents a moment of potential conversion, a moment to choose to go in or not,” says Marziliano. Each community with its different cultural traditions may have a slightly different take on those elements.

When it comes to sacred space, Marziliano believes “all space is sacred because the presence of God is in everything around us.”

At Eglinton-St. George’s, too, sacred space is not restricted to the traditional worship area. “We’ve pulled the Sunday school children out of the basement, and developed created a creativity center, with areas for drama, music, cooking,” says Oliphant. “We are trying to approach the gospel from sensory angles.” They have also created a rolling wall on the side of the sanctuary, so that coffee hour and other church social functions can be held right in the church.

Not every church member embraces the changes, however. Walter Moffat says in his experience churches are methodical and slow-moving. He feels this is due to striving for inclusivity with “townhall” meetings where the members are encouraged to raise questions, and objections.

Chiotti attributes it to the fear factor. As the world gets more complex, and ambiguity becomes more acute, many people want to retreat to something reminiscent of the past.

Even Sarah Hall has encountered resistance to her window designs. Though churches by nature tend to be more conservative, she says it’s important to remember everyone is on some sort of journey. She has seen many heartening changes in congregations over the years, though – “they’re more fluid, more open, and they have other experiences than one religious practice. They find they don’t need to be separate from culture, but that they can celebrate who they are within that culture.”


With greater interaction between Christianity and culture, it does beget the question of whether a church architect needs to be a great artist or a great believer. Chiotti says his architectural understanding of liturgical space has been deepened by studying theology. Sarah Hall explains it in art terms: “Art needs to be real not just religious. If artwork is sentimental, people can dismiss it, and therefore dismiss the community.” Father Vito says it depends on how you define believer: “It may not be a person of that group, but one who is on a journey of discovering God, in whatever way they define that.”

The past century is rife with examples: the French humanist Le Corbusier created a masterpiece in the pilgrimage church of Notre Dame de Hant, numerous pieces of the Jewish Marc Chagall’s works of art hang in cathedrals, and more recently native architect Douglas Cardinal and Steven Teeple who have both created churches of great beauty and quiet simplicity. Teeple, though not a church-goer, says architecture students are required to study the Bible – “the Judeo-Christian legacy has influenced art, architecture, literature -- all our Western thinking. “

For Douglas Cardinal, the experience went beyond liturgical education, and into a metaphysical understanding on the nature of the sacred, and the focus of worship. This inspiration to be both poet-philosopher and mathematical genius abides, with a certain amount of tension, in most architects.

The big challenge for architects and liturgical designers, then, is whether architecture can adequately be a medium for the message of change. Can it become metaphysical metaphor and bridge the dualism of matter and spirit, begun so long ago with Enlightenment rationalism? Can it reflect both who the community is, and who the community worships? But mostly, can it express the inexpressible?

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