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My Thoughts on How Architecture Evokes the Mystical

March 26, 2022, in Articles > Art & Creative Works, by

I love architecture with a passion because you can create spaces for people to use and be a part of; it’s more than just designing walls and ceilings, it’s molding shapes and lines to be used, occupied, interplayed, and reinterpreted by people. For instance, you can transform a simple utilitarian ascending tool such as a staircase into a social space used in a multitude of ways by incorporating large landings, green pockets, elongated risers, and so on. In this article, I’d like to offer some examples of the power of architecture, share some words of Abdu’l-Baha, and ponder how architecture can evoke the mystical.

Architecture is one of those arts and sciences that is so malleable and multifaceted in its philosophy and scope. Therefore, I think it wouldn’t be doing the entirety of the subject any justice by reducing it to one definition. Let’s review multiple quotes by iconic, world-renowned architects so we get a more coherent understanding:

Architecture arouses sentiments in man. The architect’s task, therefore, is to make those sentiments more precise.

Adolf Loos

We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together in a higher unity.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.

Le Corbusier

Architecture is really about well-being. I think that people want to feel good in a space… On the one hand it’s about shelter, but it’s also about pleasure.

Zaha Hadid

In my humble opinion, architecture is the art and science of translating the immaterial such as ideals, cultures, concepts, into material concrete structures that take spatial dimension within time. This is because we are bound by a material world that we all live in. Finding an interplay of the material and the spiritual is crucial and through the careful orchestration of designing spaces through sensory design features, one can elicit super-sensory, mystical stirrings from within.

For example, Louis Barragan, an iconic architect from Mexico, when designing his famous Casa Barragan, carefully selected certain flooring materials so that when a horse walked there its hoofs would create an acoustic composition that accented the water rills/fountain sounds that he designed. In addition to that, he meticulously picked particular aromatic plants in his landscaping and the colors he utilized to paint the grandiose walls strikes a powerful sense of nostalgia of rural Mexico and the village setting unique to Mexico’s culture. To summarize, Louis Barragan designed a project by using smell (aromatic plants), sight (large coloured walls), hearing (horse’s hooves and water splashes) and more to act as a portal to the ethereal, mystical sense of nostalgia, culture, and sweet reminiscence which can’t be quantified, held, or stored.

Abdu’l-Baha also speaks about the effects of beautiful spaces and our role in their design:

If man did not exist, this world would have no beauty, no eternity, no object. In the same way that the essence of man is the soul, the soul of this world is the subtle growth of spirituality, heavenly morals, divine favors and sacred powers. Were the physical world not accompanied by this spirit, it could not exist. A beautiful creature without a soul signifies nothing. A most sumptuous habitation set in darkness is non-existent. The most wonderfully wrought lamp, if it give no light, is useless.

(Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 128)

It is natural for the heart and spirit to take pleasure and enjoyment in all things that show forth symmetry, harmony, and perfection. For instance: a beautiful house, a well-designed garden, a symmetrical line, a graceful motion, a well written book, pleasing garments — in fact, all things that have in themselves grace or beauty are pleasing to the heart and spirit — therefore, it is most certain that a true voice causes deep pleasure.

Abdu’l-Baha, A Brief Account of My Visit to Acca, pp. 11-14

It is for this reason that I believe architecture has the stupendous task of designing spaces that capture emotions, culture, ideals, ethos, and religion, through transcendental spaces such as memorials, museums, religious structures, etc. Although architects use inanimate materials like concrete, in a spatial layout in real time there can something mystical that makes the inanimate animate, non-spatial, and timeless in its aura for the visitors.

Moreover, architects alongside other designers and artists can be viewed as co-creators of reality and of manifesting God’s Name, the Fashioner. As an extension of the concept that we are “created in God’s Image and Likeness”, they also strive to create what will manifest and demonstrate God’s qualities. Therefore, to practice architecture can be an act of worship and it can also reflect that godly attribute of service to the client and community, be it in the design of a House of Worship or any other structure.

Next time you visit a House of Worship, memorial, museum, historical site, or any other space, be conscious of the fact that this was all designed for you since the user experience is at the heart of architecture. In other words, architecture is designed by people for people and is thus shaped by the people. With this in mind, maneuver through the spaces with awareness of the natural light, the play of shadows, the material’s reflections, interesting sounds, smells, and so on as you experience the space and perhaps you will partake of the mystical.


Posted by

Ali Helmy

Ali is a Baha'i architect, currently serving in the Holy Land, who is super passionate about art, design, and philosophy. In his spare time, he enjoys architectural sketching, conceptual creature artwork drawing, writing philosophical and theological articles online, and reading as well.

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