Monday, December 10, 2012

Designing Architecture for Art

Last week, I was privileged to participate in the end-of-semester critique for an undergraduate class on sacred space in the Catholic University’s School of Architecture. I had already met the students and most of the other jurors earlier in the semester, when, along with Julio Bermudez’s graduate students, they showed their concepts for a hypothetical, twelve-person monastery situated between the C&O canal and the Potomac River, near what is actually the popular site for picnickers, cyclists, and kayakers known as Fletcher’s Boathouse,. Some reflections and pictures from that experience are in my October 3 posting, Sacred Space

Catholic University School of Architecture
students preparing for a jury
In planning the undergraduate project for the remainder of the semester, Luis Boza, was intrigued with the idea that the monks might create a Center for the Arts and Religion nearby. Using our actual mission statement as a starting place, Professor Boza assigned a brief to design a 25,000 square foot building that would be just up the river from the monastery, to house a gallery, an art library, a café, and studio spaces. In assigning the project, he wrote

Architecture is a communicative medium; a language in which meaning is transmitted through the physicality of objects in space. Our physical and sensory experiences are translated through acute interpretations of scale, proximity, perspective, materials, and form. Light, however, is the medium that reveals what is hidden and ultimately, illuminates our visual experience. As such, Light, with its ethereal variation can orchestrate the intensity of the architectural experience. The perceptual essence and metaphysical strength of architecture is driven by qualities of light and shadow as shaped by solids and voids, by opacities, transparencies and translucencies.

Light is particularly important in exhibition and studio spaces. Painters, particularly, are sensitive to not only the direction of the light, but also to its color. The appearance of pigments, and therefore the color harmonies within a painting, can be dramatically different when seen by unfiltered daylight than when illuminated by yellow incandescent bulbs. Even the color of walls will affect perception, as light is reflected and refracted from every surface. Sculptures often need strong side lighting to bring out their contours, accentuating the difference between heights and depths. In a gallery, an exhibition that may be seem drab and unexciting will come to life when fully lit. 

The ten talented and dedicated third-year students had clearly grown in their ability to think about the relationship between light and space. One created a complex of layered boxes around a central courtyard, a modernist interpretation of the Gothic cathedral as the multi-roomed City of God. Another included a dark-walled interior space for the exhibition of digital art, featuring an intriguing system of ceiling perforations that could be adjusted to admit light in pixellated patterns. A third designed a screen to cover the entire glass-walled building, controlling the amount of light that entered each space through small, round openings that differed in density, just as ben-day dots control the amount of pigment on a half-toned page. 

The other jurors were especially interested in the poetics of the spaces the students presented, asking questions about the relationship of building and river, the processional movement of people as they approach entries and vistas, the changing aspect of spaces and voids in the annual cycle of seasons. I found myself more grounded in practical matters, like the need for freight elevators for moving artworks up to top-floor galleries; flexible, directional lighting in all exhibition spaces; and pinnable walls and convenient sources of water in workshops and studios, to name just a few. The faculty members reassured me that next semester the students would be brought down to earth, learning to grapple with such things as building code compliance, accessibility for people with disabilities, and similar constraints. In the meanwhile, these intelligent, thoughtful, committed young people give me hope for a future in which light is both metaphor and physical property, giving shape to their own boxes of miracles.


  1. For a long time, I had hoped to be able to create a Center for Liturgical Arts, as a ministry of the church I was serving. Now, I'd simply be fascianted to have a liturgical arts gallery here in Wake Forest.

    I had worked for nearly 20 years with an architectural firm that had many church design commissions, and I did the site planning and design for many of them before becoming a ppastor and doing my Course of Study Work at Wesley. Often hung out in the studio or gallery when I was there for my 2 weeks each summer.

    j. Wayne Pratt

    1. I'm glad that the studio and gallery spoke to you when you were here. I am finding this collaboration with the folks at CUArch Sacred Space to be rich and meaningful.