Spiritual Space in the Age of Digital Technologies

Luis Eduardo Boza, Assistant Professor, The Catholic University of America, School of Architecture and Planning

Andreea Mihalache, PhD Student, Washington – Alexandria Architecture Center, Virginia Tech



Throughout history, religious architecture has provided the testing grounds for innovative materials and technologies, allowing a simultaneous manifestation of symbolic meaning and the art of making.  The emergence of digital technologies is changing the parameters of the architectural discourse as concept, design and production are no longer diachronic, but synchronic processes, flexibility occurs in real time, and micro- and macro-scale constantly inform each other.  Lewis Mumford’s statement from 1934 that “behind all the great material inventions of the last century and a half was not merely a long internal development of techniques: there was also a change of mind[1]” hasn’t altered its relevance three quarters of a century later.  Mutatis mutandis, the same “change of mind” is generating a paradigm shift in the way we interact with the world, and consequently the architectural space, through digital technologies that influence and are influenced by this new appropriation of the world.  While the potential of this body of knowledge is being successfully explored in various types of private and public programs, it has not yet been fully embraced in the realm of spiritual architecture which currently registers a certain delay with respect to the most recent technological developments.  The language of sacred architecture, from the places of worship of different denominations, to monuments, memorials, burial sites or crematoria, usually employs a safe, rather conservative body of images that have been tested in time, allowing little space for experimentation.

This paper maintains that emerging digital technologies have the potential to revisit traditional imageries associated with spiritual architecture by advancing a language based on the perception of the architectural surface.  The development of design logics that exploit the potentials of a digitally generated form finding process can bring forth an infinite number of architectural languages whose elements (vocabulary) and rules (grammar) will create products that are both rigorous and poetic.  Pertaining simultaneously to the mundane reality and the celestial realm, sacred space is defined in multiple ways: for Rudolf Otto it is a place of awe where the mysterium tremendum of a radically unknown force is made manifest; Mircea Eliade defines it as a break in the homogeneity of space that allows the passage from one cosmic region to another; Lindsay Jones maintains that there are no fixed, inherent relationships between a built form and  its religious significance, but meaning is created through “ritual-architectural events” that engage both place and humanity; in Edward Linenthal’s view the concept of sacred space is a cultural construction that emerges from the contested character of a site.

These various theories have contributed to defining the concept of sacred space through ontological, phenomenological, or cultural perspectives and they all resort to the notions of emotion and perception as essential tools for generating the sense of sacredness.  Our perception is grounded in a complex relationship between the physical and the experiential, or between the subjective and the objective. Perception is uniquely translated through an acute interpretation of scale, proximity, perspective, material properties, transitions or connections and form. It is possible then for the perception of objects and space to be reduced to the analysis of the architectural surface for it is through the interface of surface that architecture reveals a complexity of intentions to its occupant.  The study of surfaces at various scales is facilitated by digital tools that use parameters to define form through the interplay of relations and constraints (rule-based variants).

Historical Overview

The technological mind-frame of each historical age is reflected in its most representative spaces.  Through their publicness, and social and economic powers associated with them, religious spaces occupy a privileged place in the histories of architecture.  Intensely studied from different vantage points, they remain among the most accurate indicators of the technological level reached at different times in history.  The experience of sacred spaces is affected by the architectural surface which influences various parameters such as quality of light and sound, texture, heaviness of built mass, proportion and scale.  The architectural surface, in turn, is determined by the technological advancements specific to each culture and era.  A brief historical overview on the relation between perception, architectural surface and technology in a number of landmark Christian religious spaces will support the argument of this paper that emerging technologies have the potential to revisit the imageries traditionally associated with sacred spaces by developing a language based on the perception of the architectural surface.

The Church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople (532-37) has been associated with the philosophical concept of sublime[2] resulted from its theocratic scale, the dissolution of parts into the whole, and the paradoxical nature of its construction.  These affects are possible through a clever manipulation of materials and building techniques.  Merging a basilical plan with a vaulted structure, the church, crowned by a dome that seems to be floating above a band of light made up of forty windows, defies conventional structural logics.  The support system of the dome consists of four arches and two lower half domes that reach out toward the sanctuary to the east and the entrance to the west.  The bottom edges of these half domes flow into the aisles and gallery through two-storied columned niches.  The flow toward the sanctuary is ensured by the use of screen walls between the nave and the aisles and gallery.  The mosaics that cover the walls decompose the light and contribute to creating the same sense of dissolution of the matter that is produced by the unattainable structure.  In this case, the architectural surface is a complex system that generates affects through the orchestration of structural elements (walls and arches), apertures (windows) and decoration (mosaics).

The connection between Gothic architecture and medieval scholasticism is, Erwin Panofsky argues[3], more than mere parallelism or a relation of influences; it is, instead, a cause-and-effect relation that comes about by diffusion of what he calls “mental habit.”  During the period from about 1130-40 to about 1270 “scholasticism possessed what amounted to a monopoly in education[4]” and its diffusion was disseminated to urban institutions such as cathedral schools and universities.  Architects, painters, builders, theologians, and philosophers were all exposed to an intellectual training derived from the laws of scholasticism.  Its principles – clarification, “arrangement according to a system of homologous parts and parts of parts”, hierarchy of levels, “distinctness and deductive cogency” – are present in a structure of a Gothic cathedral.  Clarification is achieved through the thick, colored pains of stained glass that allow the light to overcome its ordinary condition and become the new light of Christ.  The interior spaces are divided into three main parts – nave, transept, and chevet – and smaller, subordinated parts, while the structural system follows the same logic: main supports subdivided into secondary and tertiary supports.  Working together as a system, all the pieces maintain their individuality and “proclaim their identity by remaining clearly separated from each other[5]”.  The principles of the pointed arch, the vault rib and the flying buttress were not the invention of Gothic builders; rather, they were put together and associated with the stained glass in order to create a structure responsive to the mysticism of light developed by the medieval Scholasticism.  “Technology”, Spiro Kostoff maintains, “needs a vision to become a style; you must want to say something with it before it is inspirited”[6].  The Gothic architectural surface is a logical three-dimensional arrangement of main and subordinated parts of different consistencies and opacities that are perceived as immaterial and transcendent.  It is this sense of immateriality and transcendence that creates the experience of the sacred.

The Gothic aspirations are revisited in the 19th century with the iron structures that, contrary to medieval buildings, are never truly integrated with the masonry shell.  The advent of reinforced concrete at the beginning of the 20th century opens new technological possibilities, but at the same time raises questions about the aesthetics of sacred spaces resulted from such structures.  The completion of Notre Dame du Raincy in 1922 designed by the French architect Auguste Perret represents an important transition moment: on the one hand, both its structure and finishings are made of visible concrete, which confirms the faith in a new generation of materials and technologies, but on the other hand its aesthetics is less innovative, hence easier to accept, as it relies on Gothic and classical precedents.  Although the form appears to be Gothic, the spatial configuration resembles the basilical type, with a central nave slightly higher than its aisles from which it is separated by a row of columns.  The lateral thrusts of the nave vault seem to be absorbed in the structure of the aisles whose vaults are placed at right angles to the main axis[7].  The architectural surface is no longer a complex structure, but rather a thin skin made of various patterns of concrete tracery that also incorporates glass. While still borrowing elements from other historical styles, the architectural language that emerges is based on the appropriation of recently developed materials and technologies, and will gradually find the vocabulary specific to this newly achieved technological level.

One of the most recent applications of digital tools to the design of sacred spaces, and, in fact, one of the very few, is the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California, designed by Craig Hartman from SOM.  Influenced by the ideas of retired SOM architect Walter Netsch[8] and Rudolf Schwarz’ 1938 seminal book on church building “The Church Incarnate”, Hartman’s strategy was based on the manipulation of light as the answer to creating “a contemporary design that was still evocative of the Church’s two millennium-old traditions[9].”  Formally, the structure references the ancient symbol of “Vesica Pisces”: two interlocking spherical grids that metaphorically represent the fish as the original icon of Christianity.  Moving away from predictable Gothic precedents[10], the design team deliberately employed contemporary materials and techniques that reflect the technological level of the time.  The architectural surface generated from the conjoint efforts of architects and engineers is an elaborate multilayered system: the main structure is made of louvered Douglas fir ribs that support an outer shell of glass curtain wall with different opacitie6.s.  One of the most powerful features is the so-called “Omega Wall” – a north-facing translucent glass surface with a 58-foot high image of Christ based on a Romanesque sculptural relief from the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral.  The design and production of this art piece were entirely digitalized: a photograph of the original relief was translated into grey-scale and further by algorithms, into circular pixels measuring between ¼ inch and 1 ¼ inch[11].  These 94,000 laser-cut perforations on 10-by-5-foot anodized-aluminum panels were realized in a metal shop in Cologne, Germany, and the boards were later assembled on site.

Materials, Tools and Effect and Affect in Architecture

Emerging over the past few decades and enabled by the ability of digital technologies to generate, represent and fabricate complexly shaped forms, surfaces and structures, contemporary architectural practices and architectural schools alike, have refocused their design methodologies towards examining the roles that effect and affect play in the way we experience the world around us. Often contradicting established formal and material concepts in architecture, these processes exploit the capacities of digital technologies to generate highly articulated surfaces, dynamic building components, sinuous geometric forms and intricate material manipulations, thus questioning the role of ornament, performance and tectonics. Furthermore, this body of work is affecting the means in which one perceives surface, form and space through well-crafted, parametrically generated effects which take into account a range of variables and constraints including material properties, fabrication techniques and building performance.

There is a close relationship of materiality in architecture to the realm of effects and affects. Articulation of the surface and formal effects has a tremendous affect on the experiential authenticity of architecture. Peter Eisenman clarifies the distinction between effect and affect. He states,

Effect is something produced by an agent or cause. In architecture, it is the relationship between an object and its function or meaning; it is an idea that has dominated Western Architecture for the past 200 years. In contrast, Affect is the conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes. In architecture, Affect is simply the sensate response to a physical environment. As architecture privileges human engagement, interaction and visual sensual readings, well-crafted materials effects can engender powerful affects.[12]

Given this statement, it can be inferred that a material effect performs. It communicates its performance physically and perceptually. Physically, a material performs a role serving as skin, structure, cladding, etc. Perceptually speaking, the same material can be affecting the way in which we experience form, surface and space. However, most important is that these effects can embody meaning and thus, evoking emotions. As architecture is multi-sensory, visual effects often translate into experiential effects. As Juhani Pallasmaa reminds us, “the visual image of a door is not an architectural image, whereas entering and exiting through a door are architectural experiences.”[13]

In contemporary architecture, materials and the tools used to manipulate them have suggested new techniques for studying emerging spatial possibilities (effects) while examining the resultant perceptions and experiences (affects). The emergence of digital technologies represents a new phase in the evolution of machines and tools, and, paraphrasing Erwin Panofky, a new “mental habit”. The machines, Lewis Mumford maintains, “have been an essential part of our older technical heritage” for over three thousand years and “have developed out of a complex of non-organic agents for converting energy, for performing work, for enlarging the mechanical or sensory capacities of the human body, or for reducing to a measurable order and regularity the processes of life[14]”.  He views the distinction between a machine and a tool “in the operation from the skill and motive power of the operator: the tool lends itself to manipulation, the machine to automatic action[15]”.  Based on this definition, it could be stated that digital technologies are a hybrid between a machine and a tool enhanced with yet a new dimension: the potential to generate an infinite number of variations from the information that is introduced at one end.

This paper posits that parametric / algorithmic design software tools can facilitate the conception of new architectural languages by utilizing explicit parameters that define form through the interplay of relations and constraints (rule-based variants) – providing designers with fluid modeling environments where geometries can quickly adapt and reconfigure themselves in response to various criteria. Now able to embed “information” into a digital model, designers can infuse a model with an “intelligence” that can be utilized to understand and evaluate the quantitative and qualitative performance-based aspects of their work through simulation, analysis and rapid prototyping.[16] This results in a fundamental shift from the modeling of a designed “object” to modeling of the design’s “logic”.

Parametric / algorithmic design methodologies make use of parameters to define a form through the interplay of relations and constraints. In order to describe form, two items are required; a geometrical description of the object and the relations, or associations, they maintain with each other. Constrains are relations which limit and control the behavior of an entity or a group of entities.[17]  The associative links between entities in essence constructs (fabricates) a virtual database of information where design decisions are recorded and published as a “history” of any given geometrical variation.

By modeling the logic of a geometric entity, it also becomes possible to embed rule-based variants. Rule based variants are variables that can be described by a series of facts relating to the geometry and the constraints between them.[18] Thus geometry can be described by a series of rules, each of which may relate to one or more constraint, through information which is inputted via a database, user or other associations built into the model.  Rules can be numerically based (mathematical equations), text based (yes/no, true/false), or both (if/then).

By developing unambiguous design logics, designers can generate a vast number of architectural languages where the tectonic is driven by strict rules which control the relationships between the components. These architectural languages are extremely rigorous, yet poetic. The potential of such a model is that it produces a comprehensive network of parameters and relation that, in turn, resulting in a more meaningful object that not only meets various performative criteria, but suggests a relation to cultural, social and formal criteria as well.

(In)Forming Faith: Sacred Space in the Age of Digital Technology

The previously discussed position was investigated in a graduate design studio conducted at The Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning. The studio consisted of 4 students from the Sacred and Cultural Studies concentration and 4 students from the Design technologies concentration.

Specifically, the design studio explored a new approach to understanding sacred space through the act of “constructing” an emotion.  It employed a methodology which reverses the traditional “top down” approach, in favor of an investigative feed back loop.  Form and space were generated from an operative architectural language derived from performative and experiential criteria as determined by each student.  The point of departure for the investigations was a ten-episode TV series called “The Decalogue” (1988, director Krzysztof Kieslowski) that examines the intricate aspects of morality and sin in the everyday lives of Warsaw citizens inhabiting an apartment compound.  Loosely based on one of the Ten Commandments, each episode reveals the fragility of human being through an array of emotions that range from joy, happiness, delight, to fear, sorrow, grief, anger, or doubt.  The ultimate purpose of the studio was to generate architectural objects which stimulate perception and heighten one’s phenomenal experiences while conveying specific emotions and narratives. Generative design software served as a design tool which mediated between conceptual themes, material properties and programmatic constraints.

The studio was divided into three parts.

Part One (Construction Emotion) was based on 5/10 episodes of the “Decalogue”, Students were asked to conceptual, design and construct five cubes which would express and communicate the emotions observed in each of the Decalogue films. This exercise helped students identify important performative / experiential variables and relationships. Students were also introduced to the generative design software (Rhinoceros and Grasshopper) and various rapid prototyping devises such as the Z-Corp. 3d Printer.

Part Two (Strategies for Intervention) focused on clarifying the variables and relationships into a generative logic. Students were asked to produce (model and prototype) several iterations using the generative software as a means of testing the effectiveness of their stated performance and experiential criteria. In this exercise students began to formulate their architectural language by applying it to several building specific components (walls, floors, roofs, etc.). As the process of translation; from conceptual logic to architectural logic, unfolded, students quickly became aware of new variables and parameters dictated by the specific performative requirements of the architectural component being designed. Part Three (Sacred Space Contextualized) introduced yet another criteria into the logic—program and site. Students were asked to select a site “type” and match it with a sacred space / program. Site types included urban, natural, mobile or infill. Programs included a columbarium, a chapel, and observatory, and a memorial. Each site and program suggested specific variables and parameters through which the generate logic was developed. Student projects included a mobile columbarium, an urban observatory, and infill memorial.

Given the authors interest in exploiting the power of digital tools as design devices (rather than production tools) and exploring new architectural languages for contemporary sacred spaces, the generative logics developed by students primarily focused on the various parameters that affect how one perceives the architectural surface in sacred spaces. These included, but were not limited to qualities of light and sound, texture, heaviness of built mass, proportion and scale. In addition, students began to integrate information (data) which was intended to integrate a sacred space to its historical, cultural and local contexts. As a result, multivalent relationships were developed —constructing narratives which are embedded within the built form, translated through the architectural language and understood through perception and experience.



[1] Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization.  (2nd edition) New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1963. p. 3

[2] Kostoff, Spiro. A History of Architecture. Settings and Rituals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. p.264

[3] Panofsky, Erwin. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Latrobe, Pennsylvania: The Archabbey Press, 1951.

[4] Panofsky, Erwin. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Latrobe, Pennsylvania: The Archabbey Press, 1951. p.22

[5] Idem, p.50

[6] Kostoff, Spiro. A History of Architecture. Settings and Rituals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. p.333

[7] Banham, Reyner. Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1960. p.42

[8] The designer of the 1962 Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy

[9] http://www.som.com/content.cfm/into_the_light – Last accessed on 09/14/2009

[10]http://www.som.com/content.cfm/into_the_light – Last accessed on 09/14/2009

[11] ID nov-dec 2008

[12] Eisenman, Peter, “The Affects of Singularity” in Andreas Papadakis, Theory and Experimentation, Architectural Design, London, Academy Editions, 1992, pp.42-45

[13] Pallasmaa, Juhani, “Hapticity and Time—Notes on Fragile Architecture,” The Architectural Review, vol. 27, no 1239, Mayy 200, pp 79

[14] Idem, p.10

[15] Idem, p.10

[16] B.Kolarevic, Performative Architecture: Beyond Instrumentality, Routledge; 1 edition (January 21, 2005)

[17] Javier Mondero, Parametric design: A Review and Some Experiences, Automation in Construction 9 2000, p 367-377

[18] Ibid.