“You can look at any city and see that many of the buildings have no fiction. They are purely functional. They don’t give people anything to think or dream about. They exist without inspiring people. The difference between a building and architecture is fiction.” – Tadao Ando
A brief understanding of Spirituality in Architecture
Spirituality primarily is derived from the word “spirit” or the concept of the existence of an inner self, which is interpreted in many ways by different people, associating it with place of worship, personal relationship with God or natural surroundings and art. Spirituality is about the search for meaning in life and feeling a deep sense of aliveness. It has been a part of our civilization for a long time and has been interlinked with Architecture as well.
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs helps to identify the five basic needs, like physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization, and states that once we are fairly well satisfied with one of the needs, the next higher need emerges. But almost three decades later, Maslow determined that there was one more need required above self-actualization which he called self-transcendence.
Even the Pritzker Prize-winning architect, BV Doshi in his book, ‘Paths Unchartered’ mentions-
“A building is created out of memories, associations, sounds, forms, spaces and images, and many other related and unrelated encounters. Through these, he reconstructs his image to connect to the world around.”
Architects like BV Doshi, Tadao Ando, Louis Kahn, Charles Correa, Geoffrey Bawa, have always searched for a deeper meaning through the architecture they create- be it the Husain Doshi ni Gufa in Ahmedabad, Church of the Light in Japan, Salk Institute in California, Kala Academy in Goa, or Kandalama Hotel in Srilanka- they all share an interest in creating designs and buildings that not only serve the functional needs but also engage with the natural elements in the surrounding environment. Their buildings, more often than not, create what is called a Spiritual Experience- something we crave in modern times; to make the spaces more humane so that they resonate with the users at a deeper level.
What is a Spiritual Place?
Spiritual places to some may simply mean a place for worship or be associated with religion. But spirituality goes beyond that idea. We often find architects and designers talk about meaning, beauty, connection, atmosphere, poetics, and other exquisite aspects of a place, but they are no less significant than the more quantifiable elements like form, space, and order.
A spiritual place is one that generates peak experiences for the user which help him detach from the commercial world and makes him aware of the surroundings. The peak experiences may share concepts like unity, organization, uniqueness, expression, creativity, poetry, and authenticity with the physical qualities of a space.
Not all spaces necessarily need to be spiritual or create peak experiences, but it is true that if they are designed with careful consideration by architects and designers in today’s time, they have the power to shape us, connect to us and help us gain perspective of our truest selves through self-actualization.
Some of the characteristics that make a space spiritual are:
Connection to the outside, to go deep within
The idea behind this is that the places we inhabit communicate with us – all we have to do is listen. They tell us how we can engage with a site or its history, or convey the socio-cultural context through which we can experience the place, or the values that they convey align with us and we get attuned to a sense of humanity. These spaces, by the language that they speak, engage with the users and evoke a sense of completeness or wonder in a person.
Refocusing the senses
The concept is to create spaces that stir up emotions and instigate our senses so that we are fully present in the here and now. In these times, we often find a disconnect between the user and their surroundings, but instead, if the spaces are designed in a manner to make the user fully aware of his surroundings, then the connection can be reestablished.
One of the concepts that have been widely popular in today’s times, is the idea of minimalism. It’s the decluttering of the space and keeping the space as open and simple as possible that allows one to be present in the moment.
Imagine if there are a lot of different colors or textures used in the walls of the room or different tiles used for flooring, wouldn’t it be very distracting? Instead, a clean, simplistic, minimalist space, with a connection to the outside world, adequate amount of ventilation, and light coming in are what appeals to the users in today’s time. It helps them to calm down, pause, and unwind.
Nature and the three M’s
Think of Nature as our mentor, a measure, and a model. Everything in nature follows a certain order. There are so many geometries, patterns, and intricate details that exist within the nature around us, that when replicated successfully, can help us to create the peak experience that appeals to the feelings of being integrated, unified, organized, and whole.
Experiments in design have already begun by using nature as an inspiration in fields like biophilia or biomimicry and the concept of organic architecture. It is about working in sync with nature rather than destroying it.
The Spiritual Experience
According to psychological investigations by Maslow, the spiritual experience is a mix of many different feelings which find similarities with some concepts that are drawn strongly from Buddhism and Taoism. These concepts have implications in design, and if used properly, can help to create a truly authentic spiritual experience.
They are as follows:
Impermanence (anitya)– change and flow are natural processes that can’t be stopped
Various manifestations of impermanence can be found in the built environment. For example- by thinking of creative designs that can be easily deployed or dismantled when necessary, using recycled waste materials, to reduce cost and time consumption.
The Way (Tao)- makes or forces nothing, but grows everything
It implies that design upon the built environment should fit within a larger socio-cultural and environmental context. It should respect the natural surroundings rather than exploit them. Humans desire to experience life as inspiring and the purpose of architecture is to inculcate that inspiration into our daily lives. Taoism seeks to find a balance between humanity and nature by viewing life as ever-changing.
In architectural terms, a space should allow intangible elements to be revealed and transformed by nature. In the Tao Te Ching, there are six major concepts that are relevant to contemporary architecture: Vastness, Incompletion, Formlessness, Oppositional Balance, Boundary-less, and Scarcity. A balanced architectural design can be sought by the use of these concepts to inspire imagination and enrich our daily lives so that the most essential aspects of our lives are not forgotten.
The most appropriate representation of wabi-sabi is Rustic. It is imperfect, earthy, and incomplete. It shares many similarities with Modernism considering how both these concepts present a sharp contrast to the prevalent styles during the time they emerged. Wabi-sabi compels us to pay close attention to the natural order of things.
From these examples, it is safe to conclude that if the designers and architects of today choose to be inspired by notions of spirituality, integrate those concepts into their designs, they can create spaces that will help the man of tomorrow engage much better with the environment and surroundings and uplift their lifestyle, leading them to live more mindfully. Spirituality in architecture is the need of the hour. It’s what can help to save humanity in humans.
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- Doshi, B.(2019). Paths Unchartered. Ahmedabad : Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.
- Koren, L. (2008). Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers: For Artists, Designers, Poets and Designers. Point Reyes: Imperfect Publishing.