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Designing for the Soul

By
Sara Staffanson, AIA
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Few people are free from some type of inner struggle or strong urge to better understand a larger truth. It is in times like these that people look outside of themselves for deeper meaning and focus

Few people are free from some type of inner struggle or strong urge to better understand a larger truth. It is in times like these that people look outside of themselves for deeper meaning and focus. Many turn to some form of religion in their quest for spirituality. Spiritual experiences can be achieved in a variety of places from the church pew to a log under the stars. Designing a space for the soul means being sensitive to that person’s interpretation of spirituality. It means creating an atmosphere that is comfortable enough for emotional vulnerabilities to be released. Thoughtful spaces will facilitate meditation, deep emotions, and one’s connection to a larger expanse and their role in it. Designing for such spaces is challenging but very satisfying.

One of the most moving experiences I had regarding this kind of emotion facilitated by architecture was in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany by architect Daniel Libeskind. I entered a small room, alone, through a large steel door. The space was unadorned – no furniture, concrete walls, dark and cold. The only source of light was a slit of sunlight in the corner high above me. What struck me most about this room was how insignificant I felt in the darkness. That small shaft of sunlight eased my discomfort. It captured all my attention as there was nothing else to distract my focus. With all distraction gone I was able to contemplate how blessed my life has been. The light acted like a warm embrace. I could have stayed there for most of the day reflecting on my emotions.

Thirteen years have passed and that experience is still with me. What it taught me is that spiritual experiences can occur in the simplest of spaces just as easily as any highly adorned room. The former is more difficult to achieve. The spiritual experience would ideally start as a person crosses the threshold, leaving the outside world behind, and entering the space or spaces that will facilitate a spiritual communion with their deity. Like that dark room in Germany, it should distract them from their usual cares and allow them to search for answers to their deeper questions.

Of course, it is easy to occasionally get my head caught up in the clouds as I dream of buildings that embrace some high form of a heavenly aesthetic. The realities of gravity and a client’s budget bring me back to earth. Efficiency in function and cost is as critical or even more so than aesthetics. Beauty can be achieved in a well-proportioned room adorned with simple wall treatments and furnishings. A simple elegance is enough to not overly distract the user from their purpose of seeking the space in the first place. I discovered a simple elegance in a cathedral in Zurich, Switzerland. The overall architecture has simple lines, reserving more ornate details for smaller elements, such as the railing in the organ loft. Tucked high in the Swiss Alps is St. Benedict Chapel, by architect Peter Zumthor. It is even simpler in its design and uses the wood framing to emphasize the verticality while the natural light above holds the gaze heavenward.

Capturing the senses is key to conveying the appropriate experience. Light, for instance, is an extremely powerful element in religious architecture. Low light levels suggest an atmosphere of quiet, calm introspection while a bright space allows the user to see material detail and beauty not experienced on a daily basis. Materials can be expressed as a progression of details from the simple to the more complex as the user moves from one space to another, informing them of each room’s importance and further enriching their experience.

I enjoy the challenge of exploring how best to enhance the emotional journey of others through architectural spaces. What a privilege it is to be involved in the design of religious structures. It is architecture that is intended to be truly inspiring.

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