Sacred Space in a Secular Nation of Believers

October 2012

Our seminar will examine the social, political, and design issues associated with the planning and use of sacred or spiritual spaces in secular American institutions such as hospitals, universities, prisons, and military facilities. We aim to bring architects, constitutional law scholars, social scientists, and art historians into conversation about how secular American organizations are responding to growing religious diversity in their built environments. Since the advent of modernism in the early 20th century and subsequent decline of traditional Gothic and Classical models, architects have been challenged to create spaces in secular institutions that accommodate religiously diverse users. In the context of first amendment jurisprudence (especially in prisons) and other factors like the religious, and public and/or private history of specific organizations, architects have often relied on abstract spaces, lines, colors, and distinct qualities of light, and natural and industrial materials, rather than explicit religious symbols in their designs. We will compare how sacred spaces were designed and are used daily by religiously diverse people in different types of secular institutions. The complex challenges woven into the designs and faced by administrators and policy-makers—especially those working with constituents that include Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and others who typically do not share sacred space—will be the focus of conversation and will likely jump-start future collaborative work.

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