Recently, I set myself the modest challenge to list the ten most joyous buildings I’ve ever seen. By joyous I mean in the simple sense that they make me feel happy. I love looking at them. They bring me a sense of delight, or elation, or contentment. I see the fingerprints of God all over beautiful design, no matter the motivation of their designer, and for me magnificent architecture, like all great art, draws me nearer to God. The Celts believed that the veil between heaven and earth was three feet thick. But in thin places, they said, the veil has worn through. Heaven seems closer. They used the term to describe rugged, breathtaking places like the wind-swept isle of Iona or the rocky outcrops of Croagh Patrick. But for me meditating in the Cathedral of Brasilia or the Rothko Chapel is a thin place. As is laughing at Frank Gehry’s Dancing House or the nuttiness of Habitat 67.
Sometimes I’ve stumbled upon thin places in great architecture. Like finding the SR Crown Hall in Chicago. I hadn’t expected to be so touched by it’s elegance and simplicity. Other times, I’ve gone looking for a certain building, knowing it is famed for its transcendence, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Some of the buildings listed here I see every day. Some, I’ve seen just once. But all of them are truly beautiful.
I believe God transcends time and space, yet we seek God in very specific thin places and at very specific times. But if God is everywhere and “everywhen,” as the Indigenous peoples of Australia wonderfully put it, then why are some places thin and others not? Why isn’t the whole world thin? Maybe great design serves the purpose of bringing us to attention, of opening our eyes, and nailing our feet to the floor, insisting we be present, truly present to the divine. Who knows.
Thin Places – Where Architecture Meets God
The Enriquez House, Sydney
This house is in my neighborhood and I look at it every day as I drive over the Spit Bridge on my way home. As a kid I used to look up at it from my uncle’s boat and wonder what it was like inside. It’s the Teacup House (Stan Symmonds, 1964), also known as the Spaceship House or the Enriquez House (after the current owner). Symmonds himself described its design as ‘vendome’, a reference to Vendome Jewellery, a brand from the 40s to 70s that was known for high-end stones. The window frames are so huge because they represent the prongs that hold the jewel. His intention was to make a statement on the home being the jewel of life. They say a thing of beauty is a joy forever, and this little house has been bringing me joy nearly my whole life.
Fallingwater, Mill Run
I took my wife to Fallingwater for her birthday back in 2010. It’s a marvelous experience because Frank Lloyd Wright was a master of manipulating the scale of a space. It feels claustrophobic at first, but as you move in, the rooms reveal themselves. The scale changes, there are streams of light, the rooms feel vast even when, on paper, they are fairly modest in size. The great room on the ground floor seems to hover over Bear Run River and the 30 foot waterfall. Cantilevers; the stone hearth; the Japanese influences; it’s all sublime.
The Rothko Chapel, Houston
Designed by Philip Johnson in 1971, the Rothko Chapel is an octagonal non-denominational chapel in the suburbs of Houston. It has an eerie effect on you. On its eight walls are fourteen large, black but color-hued paintings by the abstract expressionist, Mark Rothko. On first entering, it looks a little underwhelming, but I forced myself to sit there for an hour or so in open-eyed prayer and the impact of the space slowly works on you. Johnson wanted it to convey “a stillness that moves,” and that’s exactly what it feels like. Meditative, spiritual, peaceful, unnerving.