“The Sacred” – a Concrete or Abstract Matter?

What if someone asked you to put a pin on the map of your city or town, on the spot you consider your personal “sacred space”?

The different responses to such a suggestion might surprise you. For some, their “sacred space” could be the location of their first kiss. For others, perhaps a peaceful park nestled amongst downtown highrises. For me in Toronto, it’s probably the Distillery District – not the shops, galleries, restaurants, and theatres, but the ghost of the past distillery that lurks behind them all.

These places might not be traditionally “sacred,” but personal judgements may be all we can resort to, since Canada no longer has a single sacred tradition that encompasses the whole culture. That, at least, is the opinion of three authors – two architects and one philosopher – who presented their books last week at the Harbourfront Centre’s International Readings event entitled “Architecture and Sacred Space.”

The evening could almost have been two separate events: the presentation of the books themselves, and then a panel discussion. Because the actual books were not about sacred space, but about concrete. Yes, you heard right. And what does concrete have to do with sacred space? Good question.

The discussions of concrete architecture might have received more in-depth treatment if the books had been considered alone; it wasn’t always clear why they were presented in a meeting about sacred space. Yet as architects Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart presented short readings and slides from their co-edited book, Concrete Toronto: A Guidebook to Concrete Architecture from the fifties to the seventies, it gradually became obvious that Toronto’s concrete construction during those years had a spirit to it, a thrust not just toward size, but also toward beauty. This suggested a first tenuous connection between concrete buildings and sacred space.

University of Toronto philosophy professor Mark Kingwell, presenting his book, Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City, inched a little closer to “the sacred” as he discussed how a city is an organic manifestation of the consciousness of the citizens who build and move through it. He demonstrated, with slides, photos, and maps, how cities exist in a tension between the “planned” (as in the strict grid the original planners tried to impose on Manhattan) and the “inhabited” (where the grid had give way, in places, to Manhattan’s inherent geography, because the island “insisted on itself”).

But it wasn’t until the three authors participated in the panel, moderated by Lisa Rapoport of PLANT Architect Inc, that sacred space was addressed directly.

McClelland envisions the sacred as an ability to pull out of everyday life, in order to dream. He believes one responsibility of an architect is to help create a city’s dreamscape. Yet he, unlike Rapoport, doesn’t believe there is something inherent in any architectural form that promotes this. Rather, any building, even a “sacred” one, is invested with meaning by the beliefs of the culture in which it is created.

For Stewart, people can recast any space as sacred, on a personal or community level. He described an interesting life cycle of how we often view buildings: those of the recent past become “rejected” (e.g. our current view of concrete architecture from the 50’s and 60’s); buildings of the distant past become “canonical” (e.g. Toronto’s Old City Hall, which was once viewed with disdain); and architecture of the future becomes “exciting,” because anything is possible.

Kingwell, too, thinks of “profound possibilities” as being part of how we create sacred space; we cross a threshold into a space that allows us to perceive another mode of being. This can be a large community square, or even an intersection of streets.

The discussion ranged animatedly as the speakers tried to define the sacred and imagine how architecture can help foster this sensibility. But the odd bifurcation of the evening was never entirely overcome, and the relation of “concrete” to “sacred space” was never entirely established.

Do I want to read these books, following the evening’s activities? I don’t actually know. If the evening had only considered concrete buildings and their significance, perhaps yes. But we were left with only tantalizing glimpses of some quite beautiful concrete architecture as it sailed by in the slide presentations. Unable to decide, I remain suspended between the two: the concrete of the buildings and the abstract of “the sacred.”


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