Architectural Practice – Spiritual Practice

The contemporary, and increasingly international,
architectural profession (and media) often present competing
and incomplete views of architectural practice. In particular,
the predominant culture often separates design from practice
– the former presented as largely idiosyncratic and visionary;

the latter as anonymous and rational. Missing are more
fundamental, diverse and nuanced conceptions of practice
that transgress these arbitrary boundaries. We need to
remember that, by definition, practice is the means to deepen
and broaden skills, or apply beliefs and principles. The
truncation of these essential aspects of practice has produced
a profession that is often “out of practice.”
In this context I will discuss some alternate views and
broadened aspirations of architectural practice. To do so,
definitions and applications of practice will be presented,
with a particular emphasis on spiritual and philosophical
practices, as a means to reconsider normative views of
architecture. I will also discuss pertinent aspects of the history
of the profession (including architectural education) germane
to predominant contemporary presumptions and positions.
Lastly, I will suggest that inner and outer directed spiritual
and philosophical practices may provide models applicable
to expanding our often narrowly defined parameters of
Spiritual Practice
Spiritual practices (in all of their forms) are, of course,
intrinsic to religion. They deeply engage our bodies, minds
and spirits, and serve to orient us to our highest purposes.
Inner spiritual practices include individual devotions and
communal rituals that have traditionally been employed to bridge the gap between ignorance and understanding,
the human and the divine. Daily prayers, prostrations and
meditations serve to maintain our spiritual orientation and,
over time, deepen our engagements and understandings.
Outer practices include the common religious tenants of
serving those with physical and spiritual needs and advancing
a culture. Every tradition asks its practitioners, from lay
to clergy, to sincerely and routinely practice its individual
and communal acts, with the presumption (and expectation)
that self-improvement and societal advancement will result.
In most religious traditions it is the direct engagement
intrinsic to spiritual practice that makes it real, accessible
and presumably effective. Regular practice is required to
establish the inner and outer connections that are sought —
that is why it is called practice.
Philosophical Traditions as Practice
We can broaden our perspectives regarding the value of the
direct engagements spiritual practices require by including
philosophical traditions that incorporate “practices” as part
of their systems. Phenomenology, the 100-year-old European
philosophical tradition, distinguished itself from much of
Western philosophy in that it aimed to integrate subjective
experience with the objective sciences. Developed, in
part, as a counter-project to objective scientism, it insisted
that individual engagement is always part of any scientific
inquiry. Contemporary architectural theories that incorporate
phenomenology typically argue for the design of sensually
rich environments. The emphasis on a “return to the things
themselves” is a valuable alternative to the dry formalism
of contemporary architectural aesthetics. However, it often
obscures the fundamental Phenomenological perspective of personal engagement, which suggests the value of immersion
in the making, experience and larger contexts of the build
American Transcendentalism, which emerged in New
England in the 19th century, similarly insisted that one’s
philosophy could only emerge from direct engagements with
the world. The word transcendent, from which their name
is derived, is from the Latin transcendere, which means to
“cross a boundary,” an accurate description of its heterodox
orientation. Its most well known formulator and promulgator,
Ralph Waldo Emerson, distinguished idealists from realists
– the former incorporating the subjective, the latter the only
the objective. “Life,” for Emerson, “was something to be
lived, not learned.” For Emerson, “art,” a term he used to
describe any engaged, creative activity, was more of a means
of engaging the world than of producing a particular artifact.
“Art,” he insisted, “is the path of the creator to his work.”
Similarly, his protégé Henry David Thoreau, who perhaps
of all of his fellow Transcendentalists lived his philosophy,
stated that, “the true poem is not that which the public read.
There is always a poem not printed on paper, coincident with
the production of this, stereotyped in the poet’s life. It is
what he has become through his work. Not how is the idea
expressed in stone, or on canvas or paper, is the question, but
how far it has obtained form and expression in the life of the
(author’s italics).
Since its founding over 2500 years ago, Buddhism has
developed an expansive philosophical system that in breadth
and depth rivals the western traditions that continue to hold
privileged positions in contemporary philosophical discourses
and architectural theory (especially in the West). Spiritual
practices have been emphasized throughout Buddhism’s
history, and those who contributed to its philosophy (which
is as varied as Western traditions), did so, at least in part,
through their personal practices. Meditation, based on
the methods developed by the Buddha, continues to be its
primary spiritual practice and aims to establish connections
with broader and deeper experiential and psychic contexts. As
described by contemporary Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield,
“As we continue to reestablish and focus our attention, new
levels of understanding will come into view… through
very careful attention we can experience new levels of the
instantaneous arising and passing of the whole body and
mind. As we ‘dissolve,’ so do the boundaries between ‘us’
and the ‘world outside,’ and we can come to experience the
unity and nonseparation of all things, and find a freedom not
limited by any of them.”2
It is through meditation practice
that one both deeply connects with, and transcends, the
experience of being alive in a particular time and place.
Contemporary Architectural Practice
Tom Fisher states that we have “compartmentalized design
and practice,” citing, for example, that most schools consider
them to be “separate realms, relegating the practice ‘support’
courses to the end of the curriculum, long after students have
come to think of design as the making of form and the shaping
of space.” He argues that this bifurcation can be “traced back
centuries to divisions, in Western culture at least, between art
and business, thinking and doing, gentry and merchants.”3
The history of the profession in the West reveals a progression
of splits consistent with the specialization (and separation)
that, in part, defines Western culture. According to Spiro
Kostof, architecture as a profession, distinct from the
building trades, was first established in 19th century England.
It was during this formative time that the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), founded in 1834, led efforts to
standardize education and practice. At this time the education
of architects began to shift from the apprenticeship model
to specialized instruction at universities. Debates ensued
regarding the separation of “art” from “science” reflected in
the new curriculums. The creation of a specialized profession
was also challenged, most vociferously by leaders of the Arts
and Crafts Movement. John Ruskin worried that an emphasis
on professional standards and services would separate the
architect from the making (“art”) of architecture and conflate
the architect’s work (and value) with that of the engineer.4
am not arguing in favor of Ruskin’s (and his contemporaries)
position, but offer it to illustrate that debates regarding the
separation of design and practice have been around for a
long time. (Similarly, the distinction between a building and
architecture has a long history. This bifurcation was perhaps
most famously described by Nicholas Pevsner who, in 1943,
stated that “a bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral
is architecture.”) Perhaps it is time to reconsider these, and
other, false dichotomies.
It may also be time to reconsider the privileged position
of the visionary architect – a rather old-fashioned ideal that
found its most potent distillation in early Modernism. Its
historical roots can be traced to the French Ecole des Beaux
Arts, which in the 18th and 19th centuries created the design
studio, led by masters in a highly competitive environment
— a model adopted by the first schools of architecture and
still predominant today. Its emphasis on analyzing and
applying ideal precedents embodied European Idealism and
Rationalism. Western Idealism is perhaps best illustrated
by the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who
positioned history as a progression of defined epochs led
by visionary individuals. Enlightenment philosophies from
the 18th century were equally influential in the prejudicing
of individual reason and objectivism.5
All of these (briefly
outlined) perspectives made important and positive
contributions to the progressive and emancipatory aspects
of Western culture. However, they can also be viewed as
the background to prevalent notions regarding our focus
on “starchitects,” styles, freedom from constraints, and
bifurcation of design and practice.
Alternatives and Expansions
Of course, there are many virtues and benefits of solid
professional services and visionary architectural works. (I
have worked in large, specialized professional firms and as an
individual educator/architect.) We depend on the structures of
professional practice to share resources, support our efforts
and articulate common goals and agendas. And visionary
architects have, and continue to perform, valuable roles in
articulating possible futures. However, in a contemporary
global culture that can be stupefying in its homogeneity, both
often occupy a narrow territory, which is both mirrored and
supported by education.6
At the end of the day subservience
to client “needs” or to the requirements of the predominant
taste culture are not substantially different.
With this in mind I now turn to considerations on how
our perspectives – and practices – might be broadened and
deepened. To do so we need to recognize the multifarious roles
that architecture has traditionally performed in embodying
meaning, engendering corporal and emotional responses,
and serving to orient one in the world. Returning to spiritual
and philosophical practices, I will discuss how architectural
practice might be reconsidered as the means and medium of
inner exploration and outer engagements.Inner Exploration
Architecture can be understood, at least in part, as a media
and means of embodying symbolism and meaning. In this
context, the conceptualizing and materializing of architecture
can be viewed as essentially symbolic activities. Dating from
the earliest examples, architecture has served as a means
to articulate concepts that otherwise would not have found
expression. For example, Neolithic stone circles articulated a
discrete middle ground between the earth and sky, symbolized
continuity in an unpredictable world, and provided legible
structures in an inscrutable cosmos. Beginning with the
primordial materials of earth and stone, humans shaped their
environment to create physical and metaphorical places that
explained the world and their place within it.
The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-
1961) recognized the power of stones, art and architecture
to embody symbolic meaning. The school of depth
psychology he founded incorporated art, religion, mythology
and symbolism into its psychoanalytic methods. Jung
himself utilized art and architecture as a means to access
his unconscious during the self-described “inner work” of
his personal analysis. Beginning in 1923, he constructed
a house on Lake Zurich, the stages of which aligned with
the process of his spiritual and psychological inquiry (and
discoveries). Houses had often figured prominently in his
dreams and inner work (there were many architects in his
family), and the making of his spiritual retreat served as a
medium of personal transformation. The house, completed
six years before his death in 1955, was where Jung “carved
out rough answers” to life’s questions. His “confession of
faith in stone,” still speaks about architecture as a medium of
transformation, and its power to deeply engage – and change
us.The symbolic practices employed by Jung helped him to
make connections that otherwise would have remained hidden,
including accessing and vivifying the past. This perspective
provides a helpful antidote to contemporary culture that
typically views history and its artifacts as dislocated from the
present. Architectural history and theory, dominated by styles
and movements, has difficulty viewing ancient (or even more
recent) works as possessing a continuity of contemporary
relevance. Hans Georg Gadamer argued that the historicizing
of art effected a distancing of the individual from the work. He
posited the counter-argument that a presentation of art is both
dialogical and declarative, and thus is always contemporary
because we have the ability to engage it in the present. We
have much to gain from this perspective that invites us to
engage the past (without presumptions or prejudices) and
participate in its timeless present.
Phenomenology insists that much can be learned (and
applied) through non-objective means. The practice of
architecture, in this context, can be one of immersing
ourselves in the experience of the built environment. Much
like the natural environment is typically positioned as a
spiritual teacher, the built environment (and they are all
environments) can be similarly viewed. In this way, the
history of architecture opens up to disclose a broad range of
content and meaning that may hold significance to our work
today. The formal and material prejudices of contemporary
architectural culture may be balanced by the sensual, the experiential and the symbolic. In a world culture of rapid
and often unreflective change, the ontological role of
architecture remains undiminished (and perhaps is even
more necessary).
Of course, transcendent experiences may not be limited
to culturally and historically significant works, but can
find a home in everyday places and habits. Daily practices
of participation with the places we create or modify
uncover the reciprocal relationship between place and
experience. As in spiritual practices, we often need an
intermediary to make the connections we seek. Buddhist
Mindfulness Meditation, known in Southeast Asia as
Vipassana, is a practice (at least in part), of cultivating
fine-tuned awareness of moment-to-moment experience.
Its practitioners meditate daily as a means to bring insights
gained on their cushions to their everyday lives. I would
suggest that direct, contemplative engagements with the
multisensory experience of the built environment could aid
in the creation of sensually rich and experientially generous
architecture. Sitting silently, observing intently, or moving
deliberately through architectural passages and spaces,
are contemplative practices of engagement. In particular,
sketching can often be an immediate way to engage the
built environment. Through focused attention over a period
of time, our pencil may articulate answers to questions that
otherwise would remain unresolved (or not asked at all).

By extension, the direct making of architecture can be
a form of spiritual inquiry and discovery. It is well known
that the contemplative gardens of Medieval Japanese Zen
Buddhist monasteries were a spiritual practice for the
monks that created them (and came to indicate their level of
enlightenment). Henry David Thoreau employed architecture
as a means to explore and articulate his philosophical
positions. Regarding the value of an essential life, he stated in
Walden that, “to be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle
thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom
as to live according to its dictates, as a life of simplicity,
independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of
the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”7

Building practices such as geometry and proportion,used throughout the history of architecture, were both
practical and metaphysical. The Dutch Benedictine monk
and architect Hans van der Laan (1904-1991) developed a
system of proportion that aimed to reconcile its Gothic and
Renaissance predecessors. His explorations, which were
both applicable and philosophical, resulted in works that
served the needs of the community while connecting it to
larger realms. For van der Laan, his system was a means, not
an end, of making architecture, and he argued that “discrete
number has nothing to do with architectonic expression as
such; it must be regarded simply as a sort of work-method
used in the practice as a craft.”8
Applications of geometry
and proportion in the works of the Ottoman architect Sinan,
though less explicit, were deeply embedded in the material
making of the architecture. The Selimiye Mosque in Edirne,
one of his last works, features a voluminous dome on an
octagonal base. Its intricately proportioned and luminous
space is a timeless place that retains relevancy today.
According to Gulru Necipoglu, Sinan’s works “transcend
historical confinement and occupy a timeless present,” and
hold “inexhaustible reservoirs of ‘ontological possibility.’”9
Communal rituals are a means to broaden our engagements
with the built environment. It is through the practice of
participation with architecture that its often-nuanced
meanings are accessed. From group meditation, to devotional
prayers, to ritual prostrations, we require architecture to both
complete and deepen the ritual – and for the ritual to perform
a reciprocal role. The spiritual collaboration of communal
rituals can also be embodied in the collaborative nature of
architectural practice. The top-down model of the visionary
genius and the often-rational demands of business practice
can be balanced by a spirit of communal inquiry. This
perspective may serve as an antidote to an often-narcissistic
design culture dominated by the one-size-fits-all moniker
of “creativity,” and the often narrowly defined norms
regarding what constitutes the innovative designs required
of visionaries. It is an often-cited paradox that to transcend
oneself one needs to fully explore oneself – and suggests
ways to deepen our practices. It is through establishing a
critical relationship with the presumptions and prejudices we
inevitably bring to any creative activity that we may create
places grounded in the multiple contexts of which they are
a part, and arrive at the most appropriate and meaningful
“solutions” to the “project.”
Outer Engagements
The New England Transcendentalists are most known
for their introspective philosophy regarding an individual’s
relationship to the world. What is less known are the
communal and socially engaged trajectories that comprise
an equal part of their history. Thoreau was not only a New
England Diogenes living by himself on Walden Pond, but was
an ardent anti-slavery activist. Many were deeply engaged
in the social issues of their time and some participated in
new models of communitarian living. In fact, without both
complementary aspects, the potency of this important school
of thought would be diminished. This is a useful perspective
regarding the outer engagements of architectural practice.
Aspects of the predominant consumer culture may
suggest that architecture principally comprises discrete,
individual artifacts. However, the comodification of
architecture is a rather recent development. We may more
substantially view architecture as a cultural artifact that both
embodies and advances the culture of which it is a part. The
reciprocal relationship of architecture to culture underlines
our responsibility to do our part to create a better world.
Christopher Alexander’s statement that, “every increment of
construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city,”
can be applied to placemaking and architecture in general. Architectural practice demands that we engage the essential
issues of our time – issues that are too often viewed as
peripheral to predominant positions regarding both creativity
and “bottom line” business.
Recognizing architecture as a communicative media can
deepen considerations of placemaking. We build not just
for the “client” that commissioned the work, but also for
the culture of which it is a part. We create places to satisfy
present needs – but we also build for the future. We need
alternative approaches to the formal prejudices of our time that
recognize the multifarious contexts and roles of architecture,
(which is not so much “frozen music” as “material culture.”)
Architecture has the ability to engage others and lead them to
understandings that may change their life. Places created for
communal activities can facilitate the personal connections
we crave and that give meaning to our lives. And architecture,
in perhaps nuanced or poetic ways, can serve to explicate the
world and our place in it. In this way it may serve as a media
for expanding the collective consciousness of humanity. This
is a role that it has played in the past, has been suppressed
or denied in our current age, and needs to be reconsidered in
the future.
Our time is one that offers significant challenges and
opportunities for the practice of architecture. The context
of global climate change and the responsibility to create
a sustainable (in all of its definitions) world demand
reconsiderations regarding practice. Building performance
is often positioned as the answer to achieve energy
efficiency, but technological approaches risk deepening the
compartmentalization that contributed to our problems in the
first place. Instead, a practice of architecture that recognizes
the diverse and nuanced roles that architecture performs
can conceive of “sustainability” as an interrelated design
challenge. For example, dispersed settlement patterns are
both a cultural artifact and significant components of fossil
fuel dependence. More syncretic approaches may include
broadening our definitions. Cultural sustainability, for
example, may help us to find culturally based solutions to
environmental and urban challenges that transcend but do
not obviate the instrumental. Perspectives like this suggest
broader and deeper contexts of which architecture is a part
and the essential roles it can play.
If we accept that architecture, at least in part, is a means
for humans to articulate their physical, psychic and spiritual
position in the world, then spirituality and philosophies that
aim for more direct and heterogeneous engagements with the
world can serve to inform our understandings of the agency
that architecture can perform. Our time calls for us to accept
personal responsibility but not assume individual autonomy,
revivify our spiritual and ethical principles, and broaden our
practices to address the compelling issues of our time. Just
as spiritual practices can engage both our inner and outer
worlds, so can a repositioned practice of architecture. In this
way our spiritual and architectural practices will no longer be
separate – both one.

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