The Environment Inspires Sacred Spaces

Event: God Comes to Earth: Designing Sacred Spaces for Environmentally Sensitive Times
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.26.09
Speakers: Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D., AIA — Editor, Faith & Form; Rabbi Lea Cohen — Congregation B’Nai Chaim, Georgetown, CT; Alexander Gorlin, FAIA — Principal, Alexander Gorlin Architects; Victoria Meyers, AIA — Founding Partner, hanrahanMeyers architects; Henry Stolzman, FAIA — Partner, PKSB Architects
Organizer: PKSB Architects


St. Gabriel’s Church by Larkin Architects (left); Infinity Church by hanrahanMeyers architects.

Larkin Architects (left); hanrahanMeyers architects (right

If you visit Congregation Rodeph Shalom on the Upper West Side, or any synagogue designed by Henry Stolzman, FAIA, of PKSB Architects, look for the memorial wall. Instead of illuminating the names of the deceased, you’ll see small stones. This not only replicates the Jewish custom of leaving a stone on a headstone to mark a visit to the gravesite, but it also brings nature into a house of worship. In his current project, Temple B’nai Chaim in Fairfield, CT, that tradition will be repeated. Clad in stone and glass, floor-to-ceiling windows in the sanctuary will also open to the wetlands beyond.

Sacred spaces were originally built like fortresses — places to escape from this world. They were soaring spaces with light pouring in from above. Today, the trend with sacred spaces is similar to that of other public and private places — to be socially responsible and sensitive to the environment. Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D., AIA, editor of Faith & Form, cited St. Gabriel’s Church in Toronto, designed by Larkin Architects and completed in 2006, as a space that is intended to create a sense of the greater context of creation for worshippers. The church has a wall of greenery, it collects rainwater, the pews are made from recycled wood, and unadorned concrete serves as a canvas for colored skylights that illustrate the earth moving around the sun.

The Kabbalah and the notion of the tzimtzum, which in Hebrew means contraction, inspired Alexander Gorlin Architects’ design of the North Shore Synagogue in Kings Point, NY. According to Kabbalah teachings, God began the process of creation by contracting his infinite light, forming an empty space in which creation could begin. Natural light is used in the building’s design as a way to sculpt the space of the sanctuary.

Victoria Meyers, AIA, founding partner of hanrahanMeyers architects, was specifically commissioned by the 10th Church of Christ Scientist to create the Infinity Church in Greenwich Village because they appreciated the way her firm works with light. The chapel, currently under construction, features a cubic sanctuary “deformed” by light. The sacred geometries of squares, golden section rectangles, and “spheres of light” will surround worshippers. Three curving walls — from the south, north, and east — evoke the shape of a “Klein bottle” or Möbius strip, simple figures that suggest infinity with no beginning or end.