Constructing the Ineffable, edited by Karla Cavarra Britton, is a wonderful collection of intelligent essays about sacred space. For any architect who may be contemplating, or has been commissioned to design, a sacred space, this book is required reading.
Britton, who conceived and edited the book and is a lecturer in architectural history and urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture, begins the book with an intelligent introductory essay, where she raises the point that, “whereas the early twentieth century was a time when very little attention was paid to religion, the early twenty-first century has seen an enormous increase in the role and the importance of religion in every day life.” She lays the ground for her book in her prologue with Le Corbusier’s statement. “I am the inventor of the phrase ‘ineffable space,’” from an interview at La Tourette in 1961. Ms. Britton uses the introduction to pose the question answered by each of the contributors, “Is it possible to speak coherently of constructing the ineffable?”
The book is divided into three parts. Part one encompasses a series of essays starting with “The Earth, the Temple and Today” by Vincent Scully. Scully, emeritus professor in the History of Art at Yale, points out how the rise of aggressive fundamentalism in all religions has made investigations of sacred space complex and even dangerous. Karsten Harries writes a provocative piece pointing to Johnson and Burgee’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California as a building that is no more sacred in detail, materiality, or place than a big box store. Miroslav Volf, the Yale Center for Faith and Culture director, addresses notions of the sacred from the perspective of memory. Mark Taylor, the chair of Department of Religion at Columbia, challenges us to understand what we see as sacred, and to distinguish this from the religious. Emilie Townes, professor of African American Religion and Theology at Yale, lists and discusses provocatively named places of worship, including the “One Way Deliverance Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God,” for example.
Part two deals with precedents, and includes essays by architect Thomas Beeby discussing Rudolf Schwarz’s book The Church Incarnate, the Catholic Reform movement in Germany, and its influence on the works of Mies. Columbia architectural historian Kenneth Frampton discusses spirituality in the work of Tadao Ando and its dialogue with geometry and landscape. Harvard professor of Religion Diana Eck discusses her work investigating temples in India and the meaning of sacred space, beginning with the city of Banaras. Finally, Jaime Lara, a History of Art lecturer at Yale, contributed the essay, “Visionaries or Lunatics? Architects of Sacred Space, even in Outer Space,” which traces a history of visionary architecture starting with the works of Boullee, the writings of Jules Verne, the Futurists, the works of Oscar Niemeyer, and ending with the Doman Moon Chapel from 1967.
Part three presents essays from eight architects who have designed religious buildings: Stanley Tigerman, Richard Meier, Rafael Moneo, Fariborz Sahba, Steven Holl, Moshe Safdie, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, and Moshe Safdie. Safdie, in whose essay we have the words of a master paying attention to the small details, sets forth basic dilemmas: how the architect thinks about the site and how she/he understands the materials of the local region. Safdie relays a discussion about the Friday Mosque in Esfahan, Iran, beginning with a friend’s comment that the dome represents the Islamic vision of cosmic wholeness. To the contrary, Safdie points out: “The dome’s evolution is really a result of the fact that here, in Iran’s desert, there is no wood to make beams or trusses, only brick and stones to span. When you have no wood, you create arches, domes and vaults.” This point, seemingly obvious once stated, is striking in its intelligence, logic, and simplicity.
An impressive final epilogue by Paul Goldberger zips up the book and caps an engrossing read. Mr. Goldberger takes us through a final architectural tour and history, touching on unremarked, favorite works of architecture: the Friends Meeting House in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvannia; Plecnik’s Church of the Sacred Heart in Prague; Fay Jones’ Thorncrown in Eureka Springs, Arkansas; and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields in London. Perhaps it’s my undergraduate art history background speaking, but for me the book was a joy in revealing new interpretations of favorite works of architecture, discussed incisively by intelligent and insightful historians and theologians, with contemporary architects to provide a counter-point to the heavy lifting of the academics.