Chris DiLoreto
Chris DiLoreto

Why do some places foster our spiritual response while others, many dedicated to worship, do not? This difficult question was noted in an article for Liturgical Arts Magazine, when Oregon’s most famous architect, Pietro Belluschi (1899-1994), wrote, “I do not agree with the premise that if the liturgy is understood and appreciated, all other questions are readily solved, because the examples of many churches built in recent decades, while fulfilling all liturgical requirements, have failed to a great extent to create the emotional impact so necessary in the House of God.”

Can auditorium churches, churches in metal buildings, churches in storefronts, churches with pseudo historic details be awe-inspiring? If creating a space that cultivates a sense of the divine is no easy task, are there necessary qualities that could be quantified?

To answer that question, one must understand what a spiritual space must accomplish. Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), the noted theologian of the early twentieth century, postulated that underlying all spiritual experience is the notion of numinous. Otto summarized numinous as having three components: One, it’s different than normal ordinary experience; two, there is a sense of overwhelming power; and three, it is awe inspiring. This quality, defined here in simple terms, is what the best worship environments, modern or historic, cultivate. Translating this concept into the physical is difficult; and yet in a review of successful worship spaces you’ll find three overarching concepts consistently displayed.

First, they represent the people and time of the community that worships there. Each time period, parish, church, congregation is unique within the framework of their particular religion. The best churches embody in their architecture the culture, worship style and history of the individual faith community. Who we are and how we relate to each other at a given moment is frozen in our architecture. Being comfortable in worship helps bring about a transcendental experience.

Second, successful worship spaces are honest in their design.  Phony arches, materials made to look like something they are not and oddly proportioned rooms and spaces take away from anything that should be awe inspiring. Truth in architecture means materials used honestly, rooms that have appropriate width and height, buildings sited in response to their environment and structural components that are easy to understand. Spaces can be intimate or soaring, depending on congregation and desire; but, if they are truthfully crafted, each type can lead to a feeling of something out of the ordinary and prayerful. 

And, all successful worship spaces are beautiful. They are, from site planning to the smallest detail, carefully thought out with solutions that are purposeful, latent with meaning. In a speech to McGill University architecture students, the late great Canadian architect Arthur Erickson (1924-2009) said, “A thing of beauty is not pretty, nor perfect, nor flashy – but restrained, often odd, tough, indefinable – it touches a higher sense than the emotions alone. Out of the most ordinary circumstance a transcendental experience is distilled. Though lacking in challenge, since it is beyond the limits of the brain, it gives its viewers a sense of highest fulfillment.” That’s numinous.

Consider St. Edward Church in Keizer and St. Joseph the Worker Church in Portland. Two of our recent designs, they are quite different; and yet similar. Each responds to their congregation’s requests: St Edward is lofty and flooded with natural light; St. Joseph is intimate with pinpoints of natural light.  While they don’t look alike, each represents the parish’s personality, uses wood, concrete and glass honestly and strives for beauty in all design decisions.

In the end we know that the gathering of the people is what is most important. Yet the space that they use for worship can inhibit or foster that sense of community. All architecture should uplift our spirit through good design; a space devoted to worship must do it consistently. Designs that solve their functional requirements, protect us from the elements and give us a thing of beauty are not easy to produce. This mixture of science (keeping a structure standing) and art (uplifting our soul) is what makes faith based architecture so challenging.

DiLoreto is founding principal of Di Loreto Architecture in Portland.