As a nature enthusiast, I was recently drawn to Tristan Gooley’s How to Read Water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea. In this field guide to the often-overlooked characteristics of movement, Gooley explains that all bodies of water can be evaluated from four distinct perspectives. One of the truest measures of evaluative criteria is the test of whether one can equally apply them in other disciplines. Gooley unknowingly gives us a successful, albeit rough template for homing in on how to measure “sacred” in art and architecture, a subject much debated and a meaning shadowed by elusive definition.
For a time, I adopted approaches to beauty and sacrality from Umberto Eco’s, On Beauty: A History of a Western Idea and his more powerful, On Ugliness. When we are striving for some form of expression of beauty, especially one that is transcendent or one that is inspired, we must also clearly know what beauty is not. The old adage, “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it,” often rings true. And this is why the finalists in this issue are to be congratulated and heralded for their accomplishments and their courage. They’ve hit pay dirt without a true roadmap.
If we examine the common threads in these contemporary future-forward works in this issue, we might borrow Gooley’s taxonomy for looking at water:
- What is under it (how it is historically informed)
- What is in it (the relative theoretical sophistication)
- What is on it (is there practical investment)
- What is the effect of light (is it critically reflexive)
Certainly, these criteria are sometimes more successfully employed in contemporary works of art and architecture, as we have the benefit of a range of reliable knowledge about the people, places, or purposes of a contemporary project than we ever could possess of an historical work. But there is a fifth criterion: the ether. The life ether, the chemical ether, the light ether, and the reflective ether comprise the spiritual ether evidence. It is the spirit element, symbolism, and meaning of the ether that is the celestial energy that fills all sacred space.
Aristotle told us ether is the fifth element, the spirit or the soul for the spiritual force that air, fire, earth, and water descend from. Ether is the personification of the upper air, God’s breath. Einstein observed that ether occupies the space between all objects. Some have experienced it as a bridge between earth and body and heaven and spirit. We know this because when we enter a sacred space, or view a sacred work, we sense the ether is overflowing.
What is beauty in sacred space if it is without activated ether? If anything be void of the substance that enables us to reach beyond and touch something greater than ourselves, then it is simply flat, dull, purposeless, and uninspiring. Where we maximize the potential for ether’s flow, in architecture or art, even if we have done so without intention, we have harnessed the essence of its presence and emptiness. It is only then that we have entered much more than a building or an artwork. With the ether, we have crossed over into a more luminous era with an etheric vision toward an Aquarian Age.
This article by Shauna Lee Lange originally appeared in Faith & Form, Volume 4/2017.