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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE ARCH PODCAST, FORM MAGAZINE, 2 OF 3: SACRED WORKS AND COLOR
December 6, 2019
My sketches for the chapel of the Air Force Village, a retirement community, San Antonio, Texas
Please enjoy more excerpts from the podcast The Arch with Form magazine, and the acclaimed author and artist, Carol Bishop. Previous excerpt is here.
Carol Bishop: Many of your projects touch communities. You do churches for various different kinds of religious groups. You do educational structures. You do libraries. Can you elaborate on these?
Anthony Poon: The community aspect is very important to us. As much as we enjoy doing projects like designing homes or the one-off projects, we feel that our skills and talents should serve a much broader community. One of the things we enjoy doing most are our schools, serving teachers, administrators, and children. We enjoy doing projects that bring communities together. We enjoy building out communities, which is one of the aspects of our residential work, not just doing one house at a time, but doing a hundred homes at one time and envisioning what an entire neighborhood could be.
Carol: Are there any particular challenges, whether with the codes or concepts or clients when you are designing these types of buildings? For example, when you were asked to do the Air Force Chapel, how did you marry the military and the spiritual layers?
Anthony: That’s a complicated question, so I’ll answer in two parts. The first: You bring up what is one of the most challenging parts of architecture and maybe the most tedious. We’re talking about things like city codes, the permit process, and the science and engineering of making sure a building doesn’t fall down. We’re talking about client wishes, building program, square footage, and of course on top of all of this is the budget and the schedule. There are all sorts of these kind of technical aspects that we have to problem solve. Once we get those taken care of, we then, on top of all of that, have to add the artistry. We have to then add our creativity.
It’s kind of like learning a piece of music. Say you’re learning a Mozart sonata and there are literally 10,000 notes to learn to play correctly—to get each note perfect as it was written by the composer. But once you do that, it’s not considered music yet. That’s just painting by numbers. That’s just getting each note correct. After you’ve done that, and that can take years, you then have to add your interpretation. You have to add your story, your style, your idea of what that Mozart sonata really is about.
To jump to your second part of the question, we did a proposal for a chapel at a retirement village for the Air Force in San Antonio, Texas. You talked about marrying the practical and the spiritual, and that’s exactly how we viewed it. We studied sanctuary spaces and gathering spaces, assembly halls, and considered what would be the most effective kind of floor plan. We came up with a triangular floor plan that allows all of the attention to focus to the front of the chapel. But it was more than just a geometric exercise. We added to our composition metaphors of the Air Force, of heroicism, of strength, a majestic character. And we took that triangular form and gave it a presence on the outside where the building reaches for the sky. In that sense, it became a metaphor for the Air Force and how strength and heroic actions can lead to good things.
Carol: Well, I have to ask you about this project because of the name, the Contraband & Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial. Could you tell us something about that?
Anthony: That’s a proposal for a project in Virginia. And it’s haunting and extraordinary. There was a development in Alexandria where developers started to excavate the land to build commercial buildings. They came upon graves, coffins and bodies of the freed slaves. Obviously, construction stopped. The city asked for proposals of what to do, how to develop this. If it should be developed, what would be the right thing to do?
We designed a memorial park where half of area left all the burials as they were found. They were all given grave markers of stone. We created a path of wood that floated over the graves so that you can look upon and honor those who have been lost. We envision that the brass handrail of this wooden path would have names etched on the metal. The path lands in the other portion of the city block, where we designed a park as a gift back to the community.
Carol: More and more, we see that there are two camps. One is no color, just white, white, white. The other camp is: Let’s just pour on the most hideous colors so that my building shines. What is your take on color for your projects?
Anthony: Color is a whole philosophy. You’ll have architects like Richard Meier who primarily uses white. He’ll explain that through the color white, we see all the colors of the rainbow. You’ll have all of the Post-Modernists from the ’70s and ’80s using a lot of colors as a reaction to modernism and abstract art. Post-Modernists used pastels and bright colors. Michael Graves used burgundy and peach and orange and ochre.
Our view is that color is a specific analysis and study for every project. There are projects where we believe the project should have a neutral palette. There are projects that we believe color should be used. For example, we’ve done a community in Palm Springs called Linea . It’s 14 homes. All the homes are white, intentionally so. They’re white inside. They’re white outside. The cabinets are white. The flooring is white. The countertops are white. Some might argue that this is very clinical or very sterile. We see it as being tranquil and peaceful. We see it as reflecting the maximum amount of sunlight coming in through the windows.
We also see it, importantly so, as a blank canvas for the owner of this house to add their own personality, to bring in their own colors of their life, whether it’s in the furniture, the art on the wall, a throw, the window treatment, or the colors they wear as clothing, as they move through this very calming environment.
On the other hand, we’ve done projects for schools where we think for an elementary school, there should be some vibrant colors to energize the space. In one elementary school that we did in Chicago, in the hallway for the windows we used red, green and yellow glass set in as accent pieces within the regular clear glass window system. In this way, kids can look back out at the world and see it through the lens of red, see it through the lens of yellow, to see what the world looks like. Colors becomes an educational device, something to alter your perception, to have their mind wonder.
THE RELIQUARY BUILDING FOR THE 14TH SHAMARPA: RESOUNDING IN SILENCE
August 2, 2019
If our design doesn’t yell for attention, then we are successful. Intentionally, our architecture here is not raucous, but rather, enjoys its peaceful disposition.
Poon Design Inc. has completed four sacred buildings for the Bodhi Path Buddhist Center of Natural Bridge, with construction plans for the fifth building underway. The several-hundred-acre setting of the international Buddhist retreat property acknowledges the late Shamar Rinpoche, also known as the 14th Shamarpa and the distinguished Red Hat Lama of Tibet.
For this non-profit organization, our architecture investigates economical design that is both neutral and dramatic, both traditional and modern. Universally sacred, all the projects express a crafted architecture of both human and spiritual hands.
In the summer of 2018, Bodhi Path dedicated the Reliquary Building for the 14th Shamarpa. Poon Design’s structure preserves the relics of this eminent lama held within a gold-leafed stupa, one of only three such stupas commissioned worldwide.
The environmentally-friendly building sits gracefully in nature, enjoying the changing seasons, indoor-outdoor connections, connecting to the rest of the property that has expansive views to the Blue Ridge Mountains. We choose to not make a noisy statement, and instead, search for meditative stillness in architecture. And in keeping with Buddha’s teachings, we approached this modern reliquary temple, in accordance with principles of balance and equanimity—through what some may say is a Path of Moderation.
Poon Design’s architectural language is universally sacred. Our design for this blessed building starts with a historical form that provides a spiritual backdrop that is both calm and theatrical, both classical and contemporary. For whomever visits this reliquary structure, architecture serves as a vessel of experiences and events. Sacred architecture can treasure memories, house beliefs and sustain confidence.
This 14th Shamarpa Reliquary Building completes the 250-foot long site axis that spiritually and visually links our previously completed Buddhist temple and support building at the top of the hill, to the pond at the bottom, where a wood bridge and campus entry are located.
Discussion of future buildings include a dining commons, dormitory and additional cabins, museum and visitor center, just to name a few. Stay tuned, and read this feature of our work in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, often called, “A beacon for Western Buddhists.”
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.
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.
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.
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.