Definitions of Terms

The use of the term "architecture" is applied to include the disciplines of architecture, building technology, landscape architecture, urban design, and planning. Another term to consider may be the "built environment." "Culture" is used to underline the important role that economics, politics, religion, heritage and the natural environment play in shaping the built environment. The choice of “spiritual” to describe this area of inquiry is arguable but is applied to suggest places that possess spirit or "life” (Alexander). Other potential terms include “sacred”, "meaningful," "possessing wholeness" (Alexander), "separation from the mundane" (Eliade, Yi-Fu), “sublime” (Burke), “aesthetic”, "numinous" (Otto), "immeasurable" (Kahn), "innefable" (Le Corbusier), "metaphysical" and “trans-personal.”

Sinde "spirituality" is the hardest or most contested term of the three and of central importance to ACS, we would like to further discuss it below.

Spirituality In The Larger Context
National polls have consistently shown that spiritual matters are a concern to a large majority of Americans (Adler 2005, ARDA, Associated Press 2006, Polling, Religious Tolerance, Tanner 2005). While America is not the world, a recent international poll on 'religiosity and atheism' WIN-Gallup (2012) have shown the remarkable resilience of faith and religious practice in the face of a world in rapid economic and technological change. Even though much of this interest in spiritual faith is manifested in traditional religious adherence, its prevalence suggests the potential for a broadened discourse. In other words, if spiritual matters are important for many people, then it will affect their perspectives whether or not the nature of spirituality is agreed upon.  This is partially the reason for the current interest in research on spirituality in disciplines as far apart as nursing (Dyson et al 1997, Tanyi 2002), medicine (Davidson 2005, Lee & Newberg 2005) higher education (Chickering et al forthcoming, Tisdell 2003), psychiatry and psychology (Grof 2000, Hayes 2002, Slife et al 1999), and brain-mind sciences (Austin 1998, Dalai Lama et al 1991, Mind & Life XIII, Newberg et al 2001, Pinker 1997). In fact, many scientific centers devoted to such work have been created at prestigious institutions over the past few years and are supported by grants.[1] Additionally, American mass media has featured results from these research efforts with good market response).[2] In this light, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) was created with initial funding from the American Institute of Architects.[3]

Definitions Of Spirituality
Defining what constitutes “spirituality” and how it relates to architecture is a challenging task. However, at the risk of oversimplification, we use a working definition of the spiritual as referring to a heightened or alternative state of mind in which one is overcome by, or perceives the presence, insight, or action of forces beyond self-limited consciousness. William James’s definition of ‘generic religion or spirituality’ as “the attempt to be in harmony with an unseen order of things” is perhaps clearest. Spiritual experiences are realized individually and although possible to articulate, they cannot be completely conveyed due to the limited nature of our symbolic language. More specifically, spirituality addresses the human need for transcendence, and connection to others and the self (Dyson et al 1997). Scholars agree that nature constitutes a basis for spiritual experiences. Studies also show that by providing a transcendental framework (i.e., belief), spirituality imbues life with meaning, hope,

What could be considered spiritual in architecture?
Architecture that integrates, accommodates and expresses spirituality includes:

  • Places built to symbolize religious beliefs and facilitate communal rituals.
  • Places built for separation from the mundane.
  • Places with significant cultural meaning as established by archeological, historical or literary evidence as well as by a community.
  • Ancient places viewed by contemporary culture as possessing accessible, though often occult, knowledge that is applicable to today.
  • Places where the potential for epiphany is viewed as propitious.
  • Places revealed through some agent to be sacred, or where a significant event occurred.
  • Places where earth energies are believed to converge.
  • The act of creating spiritual places -- architecture as a media of spiritual development.

The closest accounts describing spiritual experiences or insights in architecture are from two areas: aesthetics and creativity. The former addresses the experience of something built (or natural) and the latter focuses on the process of design. For example, writings on aesthetics in philosophy (Bachellard 1964, Dewey 1934, Mearleau-Ponty 1962, Heidegger 1971, and others), art criticism (Elkins 2001), and architecture (Barrie 1996, Hiss 1991, Holl 1994, Jones 2000) tend to agree that, at their deepest or highest levels, architectural experiences are engaged in a realm that transcends the purely material, rational, or practical. Similarly, studies and accounts of creative making coming from the arts and humanities (Chiari 1977, Ghiselin 1952, Matisse 1995, Read 1966), psychology (Arnheim 1954, 1966, Csikszentmihalyi 1990, Maslow 1971), the sciences (Bohm and Peat 1987, Simonton 2004), and of course architecture (Lobell 1979, Zumthor 1999) consistently describe situations beyond ordinary experiences that could be considered “spiritual”. However, disagreement starts the moment we consider whether such receptive and productive experiences are purely limited to our bio-psychological machinery (i.e., only referable to the matrix of the real) or actually connect us to something beyond. Although there is no consensus, from Louis Kahn’s eloquent discourse on the intangible and immeasurable nature of architecture (Wurman 1986) to the references to the existential and spiritual dimensions of buildings made by many others (Harries 1987, 1997, Koonce 2005, Norberg-Schulz 2000, 1985, 1979,Pallasmaa 2005, Silvestrin 1999), there is agreement that qualitatively significant events exist that account for profound types of experiences.

How To Approach Spirituality
Spirituality may be studied without being trapped by religious discourse, dogma, or expectations. The openness that the term “spirituality” indicates, its fundamental reliance on direct experience (instead of unchallengeable belief or text), its adoption by many ongoing scientific and scholarly efforts, and its widespread application across traditions and people provide us with a field of inquiry ready for systematic investigation. At the same time, we also acknowledge the standards of traditional research methods. To this end, we suggest maintaining the highest standards as well as humbleness, self-criticism, and care. The work must be approached slowly, systematically, and rest on solid foundations in order to guarantee a substantive study of spirituality in architecture.



[1] For example, the University of Pennsylvania “Center for Spirituality and the Mind” (, the Neuroscience Institute in La Joya (California) (, the University of Wisconsin “Body-Mind Center” ( and “Lab for Affective Neuroscience” (

[2] For example: National Geographic (March 2005), Newsweek (Aug 29, 2005), Scientific American MIND (since 2004), Time (Jan 27, 2007 and Aug 4, 2003), Wired (Dec.2002), etc.  Consider also to the many National Public Radio and Public TV shows.

[3] For more info, visit Refer also to

NOTE: for bibliographic references, please go to website bibliography.