News‎ > ‎Window to heaven‎ > ‎

Window to Heaven - a sermon by Alan Stanton

30 June 2013: Architecture and the Sacred Space - Church of the Holy Spirit, Clapham

Well, as a few of you may know I am an architect. I think that I have always known that I wanted to be an architect right from my teenage years. I was certainly lucky enough to go to a great school of architecture that allowed me to develop a real passion for design and where I learnt that, to my surprise, I could possibly make a living doing what I loved to do.

As I say, I feel that I have been very lucky as these days I am still busy working on a variety of fascinating projects. The great thing about being an architect is that each project is different and brand new – a real challenge. In a way I still feel like a student. You have to work so closely with clients – really get to know them and to understand them – so that working with scientists, musicians, teachers, and so on, feels to me like a continuing education.

But how did I start on this path? As a young boy, I was always drawing and making things with old boxes, and cardboard, string and sticky tape. I really believe that wanting to make things is fundamental to everyone and I suspect that many, if not all, of you here today like to make things of one kind or another.

As a practising architect, I am still making things with cardboard and sticky tape – but at a somewhat larger scale and with different materials. But, apart from making things, what does an architect actually do? Why is architecture so special and why is Architecture, with a capital ‘A’, different to plain simple building? The reason is that Architecture has to deal with plumbing and staircases and windows and so on, but it takes them and the practical needs of everyday living and goes beyond them in order to express our values and our culture and, above all, our humanity.

Today I thought that I would talk about one of the most important elements of architecture, which is space. Now, I’m not talking about “outer space” or even “inner space” but just plain, ordinary space – the stuff that surrounds us in our everyday lives. Architects often talk about space as though it were a tangible, real substance. They talk of ‘capturing’ space and sculpting it into rooms and buildings.
And of course spaces can be enormous or just very small. At the scale of towns and cities – if you just think about it – urban public spaces are the framework that hold our cities together. They often endure when buildings come and go over time. In much of the City of London for example, the medieval pattern of spaces, streets and squares is still there, although the buildings have been rebuilt several times over.

At the other end of things, space can exist at a very intimate scale. There is a story that the sculptor Giacometti had made a very small piece of sculpture in bronze and was asked “what are you doing with such a small thing?” Giacometti replied by saying that: “In this way the space becomes bigger”.

I have designed quite a few shops for the famous Japanese fashion designer, Issey Miyake. Issey is a remarkable sculptor with fabric. He said that what he really designed was the space between the body and the clothes. If you think about it, you can all sense that personal space between your body and your clothing. Then at the next level up you can sense the space immediately surrounding you. Then there is the space of the room and then even beyond we can perhaps sense, or certainly imagine, the space of the streets and gardens outside.

And so this is the stuff that we architects form into buildings and places. And if we do it well, it feels ‘right’ and ‘natural’ and above all, human in scale, form and feeling. And we have to get it right, after all as Winston Churchill pointed out, “we shape the buildings and then they shape us”.

This year we celebrate 100 years of the founding and building of this rather special church. And as we sit here on a Sunday morning, for me, as perhaps for many of you, this light filled, holy space is very important – a haven of peace, of generosity, and of course a potent symbol of our community.

Just like this church, all holy spaces carry many layers of meaning to those who worship in them. In the context of what I have been saying about space, let me just explore with you the spatial meanings that they might have.

Some years ago, my wife Wendy and I spent a few days at the Dominican monastery of La Tourette near Lyons in France. The building – designed by the famous architect Le Corbusier was built in the 1950’s - built simply, and some may say crudely – with little money – but I would say with “the luxury of space”. When you stay there within the monastery’s large cloister you are allotted a monk’s cell as your room. It is well known that the design of Renaissance buildings were based on the proportions of the human body – the Golden Section. The cell is equally designed using the dimensions of the human body. You feel the “correctness” of the space – it is almost built around your movements of standing, sitting and reclining.

And, of course, la Tourette has a worship space, the church – a simple large scale concrete box with clever ways of catching daylight and dabs of bright colour. But there again, the interesting thing is the space – what Le Corbusier has done is to take the total sum of the spaces of the 100 monks' cells and made their equivalent as a single enormous volume – the holy space.

So what does this – you may think rather mechanical – device do? It makes an aspirational, beautifully proportioned Church space that conceptually and literally embodies the whole monastery – a corporate expression of its existence as a community and its humanity before God.

As a boy growing up in the Northamptonshire countryside – local parish churches were, to me, the available great architecture and showed me what could be achieved.

Here in England we have some of the finest medieval cathedrals and churches in the world and of course religious buildings are noted often as the high point of architecture and culture throughout history. It is said that “Medieval cathedrals were seen at that period as ‘windows’ to heaven – mediators between mankind and the ultimate reality”.

The grandeur and size of great cathedrals is all very well, but holy spaces don’t have to be grand or large scale. A small room, chapel or shrine can move us too. The rolling out of a Moslem prayer carpet can make a holy space in miniature. In south-east Asia, itinerant monks travel the country preaching to the people.

They carry an umbrella strapped to their back and when they begin to preach, they open the umbrella and stand underneath it. The umbrella represents a temple and the space beneath the umbrella becomes a holy space. So I think that Holy spaces are, apart from giving deep religious symbolism and meaning, a kind of intensification of space. They can move us. They offer “stillness” – a slowing down of our lives. They express a human presence and a holy presence. They focus us to contemplation; meditation and reflection. In some way they may help us to feel that which we generally lack the words to express. And when we sit here today within the uplifting space of our own church we may be able to feel some of those things and even perhaps; in the spirit of those great medieval cathedrals, have a glimpse through “a window to Heaven”.