Tag Archives: RELIGION

LIGHT AS A BUILDING MATERIAL: SACRED AND SYMBOLIC

October 23, 2020

Ando Church of Light, Ibaraki, Tokyo (photo from architectureassociate.blogspot.com)

In the design of religious buildings, whether a Christian church, Buddhist temple, or Jesuit convocation center (we’ve done all three), the element of light is one of the most critical design aspects. Whether natural or artificial, light can be a building material—elemental to sacred architecture.

Project and location unknown (photo by David Osta from Pixabay)

Throughout history, mere iconography provides an easy and explicit representation of religion, such as the cross (the Crucifixion), a lamb (Jesus Christ) or the triangle (Holy Trinity). But more abstractly, meaning both more subtly and powerfully, light can be used in religious structures to represent a higher power. We do not know what God looks like specifically, but suffice it to say, a beam of light breaking through the clouds is a close rendition for many. In addition to the dramatic presence of holy illumination, there are half a dozen other ways in which light can be used in architecture to symbolize a supreme being or various conceptions of God.

St. Moritz Church, Augsburg, Germany (photo by Hufton+Crow)

1. Flooding a church with an abundance of light, both natural sunlight and a well-designed lighting system achieves the three omni’s of God: omnipresent as in everywhere, omnipotent as in all-powerful, and omniscient as in all-knowing. The supremacy and influence blankets the visitor.

Saint Chapelle, Paris, France (photo by Stephanie LeBlanc)

2. A thousand years of stained glass—the exquisite use of colors and sparkle—provides the cathedral’s interior an elevated existence. One full of delight, full of spirit. Stained glass –and its associated pictures, stories, and technique—uplifts the human spirit.

left: Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle, Washington (photo by Paul Warchol and Steven Holl Architects); right: Notre-Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, Haute-Saône, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, France (photo by Rory Hyde

3. From Holl’s Chapel of St. Ignatius to Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp, one finds a common design composition: the random patterning of window sizes and placement. The resulting play of light suggests a mystical and mysterious presence, implies the unexpected, and delivers an incomprehensible higher power.

Chapel in Villeaceron, Spain (photo by Hisao Suzuki)

4. At times, even the most modest wash of light raking across a barren concrete surface can imply the gentle hand of one’s God. Like the way faith is supposed to operate, it simply is what it is—what one wishes to believe.

Project and location unknown (photo source unknown)

5. Rays of light passing through rhythmic architecture recalls the structure behind beliefs and teachings. The expectedness of the repetition represents the foundation and sureness of religion, and the visual and experiential reverberation gives a feel of an infinite presence.

MIT Chapel, Cambridge, Massachusetts (photo by Flickr Creative Commons)

6. Light in sacred spaces have been applied in the most artistic ways, expressing the otherworldly plane of the Heavens. Whether the creative composition is solemn or spirited, light brings messages tangible and intangible, crafted and sacred.

Chapel for the Air Force Village, San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design (rendering by Amaya)

“WIPE THAT SMIRK OFF YOUR FACE”

July 14, 2017

Crowds gathering for the public reviews and professor critiques of student project, Wurster Hall, University of California, Berkeley (photo from ced.berkeley.edu)

Late 80’s, College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley. This public review of my studio project concludes my undergraduate studies. The class assignment: design a hypothetical church on the banks of Lake Merritt, Oakland. Analogies of good vs. evil, discussions about faith, designs representing religion, etc. saddled every student’s work.

More than an academic exercise for a mere letter grade, The American Institute of Architects co-sponsored our class, structuring it as a design competition. The winners’ drawings and models would become a public architectural exhibition.

Carefully balanced on two feet, I stood at the front of the class. 40 people in the audience and counting: classmates, faculty, professionals, and members of the AIA. Dauntlessly, I presented my heroic and sardonic church: a boxy concrete temple imprisoned in a giant steel frame, seven stories tall. My artistic composition equated religion to a sanctuary within a constricting cage.

Model of church project by Anthony Poon
Model of church project by Anthony Poon

I knew my idea was good. For my drawings, I created a technique that preceded computer generated images. I employed diamond tipped technical pens filled with black Indian ink, drawing on large translucent plastic sheets. On the backside, I applied adhesive color films, each layer surgically cut by hand with an X-Acto No. 11 razor blade, known for its similarity in shape to an actual surgeon’s knife.

Drawings of church project by Anthony Poon
Drawings of church project by Anthony Poon

Concluding my bold presentation and audacious metaphors, I beamed a self-assured smile.

My professor, Lars Lerup, was already revved up. He lambasted my design, hurling bombastic criticism at my “sad attempt to understand the meaning of architecture and the sublime.” The professor’s assault was both self-servingly theatrical and pretentiously dogmatic. For twenty minutes, not stopping for a single breath, Lerup was clearly on the offensive against a foolish student. As Lerup’s back-up dancers, the faculty seated with my professor propped him up with their complete silence.

Tired from the past sleepless nights, I didn’t mind too much. Perhaps I knew my work was good. Or maybe I just didn’t care because I was soon to graduate.

Design studios, Wurster hall, photo by ced.berkeley.edu
Design studios, Wurster Hall, (photo from ced.berkeley.edu)

My professor glared at me for any kind of reaction, any kind of acknowledgement that I was learning at his world class institution. Not responding, I stood there smiling politely. Carefully balanced on two feet.

He would not, could not stand for this, as his shrieking reached an all-time high in melodrama, and an all-time low in appropriateness from an educator towards his student.

In session, a public review of a student project, Wurster Hall, photo by guide.berkeley.edu
In session, a public review of a student project, Wurster Hall (photo from guide.berkeley.edu)

The professor shouted, “Anthony, why are you smiling?! I want you to WIPE THAT SMIRK OFF YOUR FACE! Or I will do it for you!!”

Continuing this tirade for a few more minutes, Lerup eventually lost steam against an opponent that was not interested in being his opponent. And then, it was over. I jigged and hopped out of Wurster Hall.

The looming Wurster Hall, College of Environmental Design, prime example of the Brutalist movement from 1950 to 1970, completed in 1964, designed by Joseph Esherick, photo by Falcorian
The looming Wurster Hall, College of Environmental Design, prime example of the Brutalist movement from 1950 to 1970, completed in 1964, designed by Joseph Esherick (photo by Falcorian)

EPILOGUE: The American Institute of Architects selected me as one of the competition winners. I also graduated with High Honors, Magna Cum Laude. As I said, I knew my work was good.

OUTRO: I ran into Lars Lerup in New York a year later, and that my friends was an even more outrageous story. More another day.

EMBRACING THE HUMAN SPIRIT

September 24, 2015

National September 11 Memorial, New York, New York, by Michael Arad with PWP Landscape Architecture (photo by PWP Landscape Architecture)

Upon returning from the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, a colleague stated that she found the design dismal. I responded, “Maybe that is the point.”

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum is not exultant. It does not elate. As commemoration, the architecture honors the lives lost through acknowledging grief and pain. Through such, comes healing and the succinct message, “Never forget.”

In the mainstream of TV shows and magazines, architecture is merely thought of as designing homes. And indeed, architecture is a house.

But what can it house?

Besides housing families, architecture can collect memories, it can store beliefs, and it can sustain faith.

Chapel for the Air Force Village, San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design (rendering by Amaya)
Chapel for the Air Force Village, San Antonio, Texas, by Poon Design (rendering by Amaya)

Whether the design of memorials or sacred structures such as shrines and temples, the architecture of spirituality informs. It influences and guides. Such architecture can be a celebration enlivening the human spirit, or it can be solemn, confronting the human spirit.

Here, when I speak of religion, I am referring to a belief system that might be a private personal agenda or a structured practice of an organization’s ethics. The architecture of religion then, offers spaces that contain an individual’s creed or a community’s doctrines. The resulting forms and materials from such architecture express conviction and devotion.

top: Holocaust and Human Rights Center, University of Maine at Augusta; bottom: River of Life Christian Church, Santa Clara, California, by Poon Design (renderings by Amaya)
top: Holocaust and Human Rights Center, University of Maine at Augusta; bottom: River of Life Christian Church, Santa Clara, California, by Poon Design (renderings by Amaya)

The design of a church for example can be flooded with natural light to express the revelry of faith. On the other hand, a church can be intentionally dark and somber, so as to make any form of light, say a single small sun beam, apparent and dramatic—representing the presence of a holy deity.

I previously wrote about my many years serving Buddhists as their select architect. For their national foundation, I designed places to worship and study, to retreat and meditate, and to gather and connect.

Contraband & Freedmen’s Cemetery and Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia, by Poon Design (rendering by Zemplinski)
Contraband & Freedmen’s Cemetery and Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia, by Poon Design (rendering by Zemplinski)

Poon Design has created spiritual spaces of all kinds. Just to name a few: a 140,000-square-foot manufacturing plant transformed into a church in California, a Holocaust and Human Rights library in Maine, and a cemetery and memorial park for the freed slaves in Virginia. Our other projects of remembrance include 9/11 in California, AIDS victims in Florida, and the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C.

Whether a chapel designed for a retirement community of the Air Force in Texas, or a Massachusetts memorial designed for the victims of the Holocaust, my architecture can be engaged individually and intimately, or publicly and as a society.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C., by Poon Design
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C., by Poon Design
© Poon Design Inc.