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Utah's Sacred Spaces


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After years of searching, Julio Bermudez finally found it in Orlando, Fla.,—a reverie that left him in tears. “I was so at peace and in a total state of grace,” the former University of Utah architecture professor recalled. It was the spiritual experience that he had sought, in vain, for many years. “I was 34 and had given it up as tree-hugger crap,” he said. Then, in 1992, as the sun set, he encountered “an opening to another realm” while standing in the interior sundial of the Team Disney Building designed by Japanese uberarchitect Arata Isozaki.

“It’s the difference between being awake and asleep,” said the Argentina native, struggling to describe the mystical experience. “You have the sense of a larger belonging, a complete wholeness.”

Although the reverie lasted only minutes, it imparted a craving for another. Bermudez sought it overseas. Over a period of 16 years, he was successful in such buildings as the Pantheon in Rome and La Alhambra in Granada. However, he soon learned that “if you are too expectant, it doesn’t work. Once you have had the experience, the intellect gets in the way,” he explained. His expectations for the Sistine Chapel, Blue Mosque and Stonehenge went unrealized. “You have to be ready: heart open, senses fully on, awareness high, thinking no thought, intuition unfolding.”

And, of course, you must be in a conducive place. Like a poem, symphony or painting, great architecture is an art form that engages us. “Beauty is an engagement, a dance, an interaction between the self and the other,” Bermudez said. When we are receptive—intellect surmounted, senses awakened—a spiritual realm is accessible. Unfortunately, it is a rare instance nowadays, in the age of the strip mall. Not only do we tend to intellectualize life’s events, most buildings are designed with utility, not art, in mind. They lack the synergy of space, materiality and light that provides a gateway to the transcendent. However, six local buildings do, he says.

Sam Bawden, an LDS Church architect, believes light is a crucial factor. He asserts that the designers of Europe’s cathedrals used light in a calculating way. “They took light away from the building interior only to give it back in small doses of stained glass,” he says. “Architecture contributes to epiphany by providing a surface for the light to cast a shadow, a grand space where our thoughts and aspirations can wander.” Bawden says.

But Bawden argues that the knowledge and beliefs one carries into a building are as important as the space itself. “You can’t separate the two; one influences the other.”

Light is the transformative agent in the great hall of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, a place Bermudez rates as one of the best buildings in Utah for catalyzing mystical experience. Prime time is noon on a sunny day, he said.

Dawn is the best time at the Masonic Temple. It is the facade that has the potential for profound experience, Bermudez says, and it is best apprehended in early-morning light during a snowfall. “The snow is transient and therefore contrasts dramatically with the Egyptian-influenced permanency of the building’s exterior.”

If the Masonic Temple is a study in black and white, the Cathedral of the Madeleine is a masterwork in unexpected hues. “The inside is an explosion of sensual colors,” says Bermudez, calling it a striking contrast to the Gothic exterior. “As the dim light changes, you are brought to a standstill near the edge of cognitive understanding.” The cathedral is usually empty and quiet, an advantage it has over the much-praised Salt Lake City Main Library.

The interaction of light and the immensity of space give the library spiritual potentiality. The difficulty, Bermudez said, is that it is a busy place—many people and a welter of architectural detail. It exemplifies Bawden’s expressed concern that elements of a building might create a barrier instead of a conduit to the spiritual realm. “It’s like people talking to you when you are trying to listen to Mozart,” Bermudez said.
It is easier to avoid distraction in the Utah Capitol. Inside, the dome in the rotunda “behaves” gyroscopically. “It is like infinity,” he says. “No matter where you move, it is always the same.” Salt Lake City architect Peggy McDonough agrees. “There is some magic which happens when matching the finite with the infinite,” she says. Outside, the panoramic view of the city is a powerful conclusion to a visit, particularly at dusk.

Sunset, too, is prime for a structure on Antelope Island. There, nestled into Ladyfinger Ridge, the visitor center “takes cues from the geography,” says McDonough, who designed the award-winning building with others from EDA Architects. Just west of the low-slung, concrete building, an amphitheater is terraced into the sagebrush. Cream-colored fabric stretched over a skeleton of weathered beams provides overhead cover. To the front stands a sturdy, post-and-beam frame large enough to drive an ATV through. It is as much a lens as a frame— a crescent of white sand and a sweep of blue water to the western horizon. “It’s very much about framing views,” says McDonough. “But it’s best when architecture disappears so your experience is with the entire space.”

Each of these buildings accommodates “a pilgrimage for the sake of beauty,” says Bermudez, who now leads a graduate program on sacred spaces at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. To make a deliberate journey is to be rewarded with a spiritual experience and, perhaps, a deeper understanding of what poet John Keats meant when he wrote, “beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

 How to Approach the Mystical Threshold

  • Use intuition, not intellect, to select a site. A new place is preferable to a familiar one.
  • Plan to spend at least two hours at the site. Dawn and sundown are prime times. Arrive an hour before sunrise or sunset.
  • Go alone. Take nothing with you, but dress for the conditions. Don’t go if you are tired, thirsty or hungry, but don’t go after a big dinner. No alcohol, drugs, iPods or cell phones.
  • Approach the site on foot from at least 100 yards away, walking at one-third your normal gait. Avoid other people. Focus on sounds, smells and sights. If thoughts pop into your mind, don’t engage them. Stay within the sensual bounds of the experience.
  • Walk about the inside and outside spaces of the site. Never hurry. If something attracts you, slow or stop to register as much as you can before moving on.
  • After a deliberate walkabout, return to the place most viscerally attractive. Acting on instinct, choose a comfortable place to sit.
  • Close your eyes and count 10 exhalations. Open your eyes slowly. Remain relaxed but alert to arising sensation and emotion. Keep your mind clear of thought by focusing on the sensual.
  • Just sit—relaxed, alone and silent—for at least 30 minutes. Observe deeply the passage of time, the movement of light, and the pattern of activity but analyze none of it.
  • When the time is up, stand and walk unhurriedly around the area where you were sitting. Remain relaxed and alert.
  • At the end of 10 minutes, close your eyes and count 10 exhalations. Leave slowly, remaining silent for a time. Writing a stream-of-consciousness account of your impressions may be useful.