Sacred Space // Devin Brown
“There are many sacred places which most people sense as sacred upon a first encounter and without the presence of any accompanying ritual or even any knowledge of their sacred history.” This is the opening statement made by Professor Michael Brill during his lecture titled Using the Place-Creation Myth to Develop Design Guidelines for Sacred Space. He goes on to say that because we recognize these places as one of the set of sacred place, there must be a set of common and fundamental characteristics by which these places reveal themselves to us as sacred. The hypothesis he suggests is that we all, somehow, share in an archetype built into the structure of our mind which allows us to experience sacred spaces. He dives into searching for the characteristics themselves, by looking directly at the myth of place-creation itself. The myth that all sacred spaces encode and relive, and directly ties to god’s first creation of the first humanized place.
Brill attempts to imagine himself as an ancient place-maker, believing the myths as real and an integral part of life. He attempts to make a place which is the myth of creation, and not merely symbolizes it. From this method he laid down a set of design guidelines for sacred space, none of which pertain to any specific religion or ritual. The guidelines for creation of such a space are; making a location and a center, making orientation and direction, order, differentiating boundaries, reaching upwards, bounding, passage, views of other places, light, materials for making, nature in our places, and finishing a place.
These seem like a trivial set of guidelines that could be used to describe a systematic design of any building. However, he describes the guideline in relation to the myth and its meaning for place and suggests an implication for physical design.
Taking Brill’s list of physical guidelines and comparing it to existing sacred spaces, one would find that, for the most part, the list holds up. That is not to say certain sacred places don’t deviate completely from the list, it is just to say that the characteristics described on the list are commonplace to sacred spaces throughout the world.
Looking to apply this list to physical sacred structures I looked at the Al-Masjid al-Ḥarām. This is the most holy place to the followers of Islam. The first characteristic on the list is making a location and a center. This characteristic is referring to the idea that most myths contain, in that somewhere on the earth there is a center of the world. The Masjid al Haram is the center of the world according to the Islamic faith. The following characteristics, Making Orientation and Direction and Order, are also clear in the structure of the al Masjid al Haram. The entry to the mosque is along a passage that is oriented on a north south axis. The building also has a rhythm of spaces and a clear order to it. The mosque is bounded by tall walls and columns and opens up to the sky which satisfies the Reaching Upwards characteristic. While I’m not going to run through each characteristic specifically, the Mosque contains the characteristics of a sacred space defined by the myth of place-creation.
Are these guidelines still applicable in a modern day society where the idea of the myth of creation is changing in society? I think the answer to that question is yes. The guidelines are written according to the idea of a myth of god’s creation of the first humanized place out of chaos. The idea “human creation” is constantly changing and evolving according to what is being discovered. The chaos could also be interpreted to represent any number of things. This means that the guidelines could be repurposed to create a site celebrating science, history, or the site of a disaster. I believe that the ideas behind the guidelines could still define a sacred space in today’s society.
Written by Devin Brown