Catholic UniversitySchool of Architecture, a place where students are encouraged to consider what makes a space seem sacred.
As the invited outside voice in a group that otherwise consisted of members of the School of Architecture faculty, I felt awkward at first, not knowing the rules and customs in this field that is part art, part engineering, part faith. Soon, however, I realized that, just as in any art school critique, the tools of the jury are careful observation, metaphorical thinking, and concern for the teachable moment. My own voice as an artist and a liturgical scholar added one more note to the already wide and deep conversation.
The students had spent the previous three weeks responding to a brief to design a small monastery for twelve monks. Under the direction of Associate Professor Julio Bermudez and master architect and guest lecturer AlbertoCampo Baeza, the students looked at the site, thought about voluntary simplicity, beauty, and monastic buildings from earlier times. Given a mere 5000 square feet to accommodate a chapel, a library, dining room, dormitory, and utility spaces, the students made preliminary sketches, concept models, plans, elevations, and presentation models of their visions of sacred space.
In the twenty minutes allotted to each group’s presentation, only some of the issues raised by cardboard models, site photographs, and a variety of plans and elevations could be addressed. Still, I was struck by the variety of questions. Where do people enter the building? What is the relationship between the building, the nearby river, and the surrounding trees? What does the building look like when it is lit at night? How does the arrangement of open and closed exterior surfaces speak about the space enclosed within? What is that door made of? What happens when the river rises? What is the story you want to tell?
In the end, it is the story, whether told in concrete and glass, wood and stone, or paint or words. These compositions in cardboard and glue tell stories of procession and pilgrimage, of contemplation and recreation, of eating and sleeping and studying in a place of where the natural world intersects the human-made. In a few months, some of these elegant explorations into light and form will be on exhibit in the Dadian Gallery, in an exhibition called “A Box of Miracles.”