The Architecture, Culture & Spirituality Forum, an informal group of scholars and architects, has just held its fifth annual symposium (6-9 June 2013). Once a year a core coterie of theorists and practitioners gather in a quiet place to reflect on some aspect of architecture’s transcendent qualities. These symposia are often held in monasteries, though in 2012 the group met in Chitzen Itza.
This year, the forum gathered for a few days in Glastonbury Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Hingham, just outside of Boston (very tranquil) before moving to Harvard Divinity School (very staid) for a day. As the topic of this year’s discussion was “urbanism, spirituality and well-being,” I decided to join in.
While the topic of urbanism and spirituality is a rich one for art historians (think of Sixtus Vth’s Rome and Mimar Sinan’s Istanbul), the group is principally interested in the current state of the practice. Everyone can acknowledge the brilliant creations of the past, and the great potential built spaces have to connect people to spiritual dimensions of existence, both personal and collective.
So why are our current cities so devoid of rootedness to the ethereal? Is spiritual architecture at the scale of the city possible anymore? I think the urban designing of the contemporary Sufi city of Touba can help answer such questions, which is why I attended.
Small, highly focused conferences are the best (see my earlier post about this) and this one did not disappoint. For one thing, I got to meet several authors I can credit with having inspired my line of inquiry while studying Touba. Among them I would like to name A. T. Mann (Sacred Architecture, Element Books, 1993) and especially Nader Ardalan (The Sense of Unity: the Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture. University of Chicago Press, 1973). Nader is the forum’s sheikh of sorts. His explication of Iranian architecture proved fundamental to my research in Senegal and I was glad to discover I was not alone.
The problem as I see it is this; modernity in architecture and urban planning has produced many excellent advantages for cities around the world, including in the realms of health, housing, public transit and economic productivity. Yet, at the same time, it has impoverished cities in other essential regards, mostly related to sense of place and of scale.
Developments since WWII in particular (suburbanization and sprawl, the primacy of the private automobile, the homogenization of construction materials and practices) have turned cities into gargantuan spiritual deserts, places where non-material (one can say metaphysical) meanings and perspectives are hard to relate to.
Consumption in the city is hardly new, but nowadays, if you are not actively consuming some good or service you simply no longer have the right to be around—you’re loitering, or worse, you’re homeless. The public sphere has been erased, and with it any sense of the public good when it comes to urban planning decisions. The short-term profitability of private interests is paramount. Civitas has been reduced to law-and-order + boosterism (call it “urban bling”), manifest in a plethora of glitzy iconic buildings and promise-the-moon mega projects.
Once in a while, as in Taksim Square these past weeks, courageous citizens are able to forestall or reverse the process locally, at great personal cost to their physical well-being (groups and individuals who resist the neo-liberal juggernaut are now routinely branded “terrorist” and treated as such by the state’s agencies of repression).
The majority of the earth’s population is urban. Hundreds of millions of new urbanites will join us in the next few decades. Yet at no time in our history have our cities been so ill-adapted to the living of multidimensional lives.
This is not a matter of religion and of religious institutions in the city. There are plenty of churches and mosques and temples even in new cities and neighborhoods. It is a matter of spirituality; of permitting people to connect with larger/deeper/loftier realness in their daily lives, in their own neighborhoods.
According to the studies presented at the symposium, locally, there seems to be a great capacity to find space for transcendence in any number of modern, post-modern and hyper-modern places. Citizens of post-industrial Detroit create places of communion and meditation where factories and flats used to be. Citizens of new subdivisions in the Netherlands create communal forests by planting trees to celebrate the births (and sometimes the deaths) in their families. The citizens of Yakutsk, Siberia, erect cosmogonic wooden poles in various places across the city to house the spirit of each place.
These popular interventions in the urban fabric are testaments to what people will do with places given a chance. People will connect to the numinous even in the most sterile of matter-of-fact functionalist architecture. The evocative concept of “re-enchantment” with the city describes well what is going on here.
Sacredness, now as much as in the past, doesn’t just happen. You have to create it. And whereas in the urban past religious institutions were responsible for most of the sacred place-making, today citizens are increasingly doing it for themselves, inventing post-secular sacred places and rituals where they see fit. For how much longer can architects, developers and urban planners continue to ignore this urban function?
The presentation on the spiritual dimensions of Touba’s urban design which I gave at the Architecture, Spirituality and Well-being symposium, June 2013.
- Nader Ardalan & Laleh Bakhtiar (1973). The Sense of Unity: the Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture. University of Chicago Press.
- Thomas Barrie (2010). The Sacred In-Between: The Mediating Roles of Architecture. Routledge.
- A. T. Mann (1993). Sacred Architecture, Element Books.