Between the Sacred and Profane – Interview with Karla Britton

KARLA BRITTON, Lecturer, Yale School of Architecture

You are a scholar of modern and religious architecture, can you describe what draws you to these subjects?

In keeping with your theme of “taboo” in Paprika, my current research addresses modern religious buildings in unfamiliar and “marginal” places. I have long been drawn, for example, to the churches at the pueblos and reservations in the landscapes of my youth in the American Southwest which have remained unaccommodated and outside the mainstream of most architectural histories. Also, the widespread territorial rearrangements in the post-World War II period produced huge demographic movements in religion, such as the migration of Christianity out of the West and into the Global South. I’m interested in reading key examples of the architectural manifestations of this religious migration (often by followers of the Modern Movement)—in diverse places like the Navajo Nation; sub-Saharan Africa; India; and the Dominican Republic.

I’m particularly interested in how architects articulated the dissonance between universals and localized cultures; between the sacred and the secular; between theology and new building technologies; and the ways in which the religious building is used as a focal point for modernization, ritual, myth, and ancient symbolism. The focus is largely on the migration of Christianity out of Europe and North America, but there are obviously parallels with other religious traditions as well. My research also brings into relationship the two trajectories of my scholarly work: the exactitude and the ineffable.

As a scholar within a professional school of architecture, I’m conscious of the models of teaching set by my mentors: my responsibility is to try to open students of architecture to fresh perceptions and to encourage them to seek alternative visions. In my classes we often address issues that are perceived as unfashionable by colleagues or may be otherwise routinely ignored. As much as possible, I try in my teaching to break down limiting and reductive categories and talk about themes that are not always easily accommodated within the mainstream discipline.

After the most recent presidential election, the word “post-truth” has come to be a hallmark of our political environment. How do you see the architect evolving politically with this institutionalized condition?

The sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote, “If the thinker does not relate himself to the value of truth in political struggle, he cannot responsibly cope with the whole of lived experience.”

By your response, it would seem that you hold the architect to a high regard as an author intimately engaged with “truth.” Can you elaborate on how “truth” relates to the discipline of architecture and the architect?

Speaking in broad terms, the architect has often been understood as someone who is committed to a very public role. I’m not alone in believing that the architect should be trained to have the capacity for considered thought and judgment, and an independent voice, and in the most general sense, be able to contemplate knowingly the human condition itself. The architect should, I think, advance knowledge through humane understanding and study, coming to some appreciation of what is truthful and of value through her own productive activity. Aiming to be bold in the affirmation of such humane values is especially urgent now for the architect as she participates within the current media ecosystem in which, as President Obama described, “everything is true and nothing is true.”

For some architects, like Le Corbusier, religious and sacred structures seem to be a foil to an otherwise robust body of architectural work. For example, you have argued that Ronchamp is the foil to the machine-like modernism of Le Corbusier. As a typology, why are religious and sacred buildings more difficulty to place within a critical arc of work?

Sacred architecture does not fit easily within a modernist pedagogical approach to architecture which emphasizes a rational organization and clear articulation of built-form. Instead, sacred architecture often implies a different kind of genealogy which is found in sentiments, ritual, mystery, and instincts. As Rafael Moneo has said, to design a building or a church or a temple today, implies risk on the part of the architect; the architect cannot rely on a shared vision of religious space, but instead must risk offering his or her own version of sacred space.

You’ve admitted you have received some opposition on your scholarship of sacred spaces within architecture. Why do you think there is a debate around this subject?

Yes, some of my colleagues have perceived the topic as unfashionable and on the fringe. Perhaps it is out of fear of the ways the topic suggests a kind of fundamentalism. Vincent Scully wrote in 2010 that fifty years ago the topic of “sacred” architecture was easier to address than it is now, for we could affirm with some confidence that the role of specifically religious structures as embodiments of the sacred was dwindling. Yet while elements of the sacred might be perceived in many kinds of modern buildings, in fact the attainment of the sacred was one of the well-hidden agendas of canonical modern architecture as a whole. Today, though, he said we are less certain of this and the issue has become more complicated and even dangerous.

Your research and coursework is also interested in the intersection of classicism and modernization. This pairing has clear lineage and has a legible stylistic language. We are now in a undefined architectural period. How can we understand ideas such as continuity and exactitude in our time? Do these ideas even exist?

Although now countercultural and even provisional, the themes of continuity and exactitude in my experience opens up today the possibility for a self-examination of our discipline. These themes encourage reflection on the vocation of the architect; on the difference between building and architecture. Examining the practices of architects who are self-consciously interested in continuity generates discussion about the relative importance of cohesion in the profession or the need for an architect today to have a consistent working methodology.

There is no doubt we have all encountered sacred and profane spaces. However, we seldom speak of the “unorthodox” in architectural thinking and practice. In your opinion, why has the discourse of architecture been stripped of its more illicit possibilities in favor of its more pure intentions?

I think architecture increasingly offers us the possibility for being “illicit”—if we mean by illicit that which is forbidden by law, rules or custom. Today architecture itself is in many ways a marginal and anachronistic discipline, so if we use it to hold onto concepts that are quite anachronistic to our lives—themes of serenity, the sacred, and the magical to name just a few—I think we are well within an unorthodox practice.