The Role of Design in Cultivating and Enhancing Spiritual Connection

“In the arts, one may find peace and contentment, for we may use our ability to transform our inner energy in a satisfying manner.”
—Melita Rodeck, AIA

Elevation drawing
Melita Rodeck, Consolata Missions Seminary, 1959.

Architect Melita Rodeck established the Regina Institute of Sacred Art in the late 1950s—shortly after forming her own architectural firm—with the purpose of bringing together design professions to help establish a set of standards for the quality of sacred art. A large part of the organizational mission involved “educat[ing] parishioners about the psychological need and emotional impact of good design.” The institute also helped parishes to realize the significance of these ideas by participating in their efforts to redesign and redecorate religious spaces. (IAWA newsletter, no. 8, Fall 1996)

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Melita Rodeck’s proposed sanctuary design for the Holy Comforter Church includes clean lines and minimal forms for the space and the furnishings that are both beautiful and functional.

Perhaps more significantly, one can look at Rodeck’s work with religious architectural spaces within the context of a much longer history dealing with what sacred art, architecture, and design should be expected to accomplish. Of particular relevance is the history of Catholic artistic engagement, with its strong implications that a sense of sacred beauty was essential to the message of eternal life and divine bliss. (Saward, John. “The Poverty of the Church and the Beauty of the Liturgy.The Institute for Sacred Architecture 31 (Spring 2017).) This same notion is supported in the work of the Second Vatican Council, which dealt at length with religious art in the 1963 Sacrosanctum Concilium. Among the many doctrinal concepts outlined in this document were notions such as “of their nature the arts are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands.” The document further directed that such arts should “seek for noble beauty rather than sumptuous display.” (“Chapter VII: Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings.” In Sacrosanctum Concilium. Second Vatican Council, 1963.)

Church
Melita Rodeck, Church Interior, Conceptual sketch

The Sacrosanctum Concilium further specifies that art can and should be reflective of the times and acknowledges that all manners of artistic styles have been embraced throughout the history of the Catholic church. This bears heavily on Rodeck’s approach to architectural design in these spaces, which is extensively modernist in its execution and carefully uses light, form, color, and scale to shape the experience within the space.

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This reflects a modernist sensibility of human-space interactions, moving away from a dependence on highly narrative interpretations of religious interiors in favor of evoking emotional responses to elements of the built environment. This approach also reflects a concern with religious harmony, and a tendency to encourage slightly decentralized expressions of devotion through the acts of meditation and contemplation, which are not necessarily rooted in any particular religious tradition. This is the emotional impact of good design that Rodeck spoke about—it has the power to elicit a palpable and immersive connection, to invite parishioners to examine their own relationships with the mysterious, the sacred, the divine, and the spiritual.

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In The Role of Religious Art Over 50 Years: An Assessment, James Hadley concludes that “the power of religious arts of the past 50 years has been their capacity to invite us to gaze more intently into the fragment, the incomplete reality we feel has seized us, and there begin to perceive the possibility of human psycho-spiritual and physical wholeness restored in the divine.” (Hadley, James. Faith & Form: The Interfaith Journal on Religion, Art, and Architecture 50, no. 3 (September 1, 2017).) This sentiment is certainly reflected in Rodeck’s approach to creating spaces that are beautiful and minimal, that in their simplicity encourage meditation, connection, and reflection, and that are capable of stirring profoundly complex experiences.

 

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Materials from the Melita Rodeck Architectural Collection can be viewed in the Special Collections Reading Room at the Virginia Tech Libraries.

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Opinion Makers: Women writers on architecture

The world of architecture lost a passionate and opinionated voice when Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic for The New York Times (1963-1982) and The Wall Street Journal (1997-), died earlier this month at the age of 91. How opinionated was she? Check out this New Yorker cartoon by Alan Dunn that appeared in 1968. And although the Pulitzer Prize-winner was the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper when she started at The New York Times in 1963, she was actually following a tradition of women who wrote about extant architecture.

Book Cover, 'The House in Good Taste' by Elsie de Wolfe
America’s first decorator. Elsie de Wolfe’s seminal book that banished Victorian gloom. Special Collections call number: SPEC Large NK2115 D6 c.2

In the mid-to-late 19th century architecture was a relatively new profession engaged in a public campaign to separate itself from common ‘builders.’ Authors such as Louisa C. Tuthill, Mariana Van Rensselaer, Mary H. Northend, Edith Wharton, and Elsie de Wolfe served as intermediaries between the lay audience (i.e. potential client base) and architects. Though not trained in architecture per se, these women were often from privileged backgrounds that afforded them the highest levels of private education, an early knowledge of art and culture, and the ability to travel – often abroad. They published primarily in general periodicals aimed at the emerging middle class: Century, House and Garden, and American Homes and Gardens, although some such as Van Rensselaer did contribute to the trade publication American Architect and Building News (AABN).

Embracing the 19th-century notion of the cult of domesticity, they served as style dictators endorsing particular aesthetics and architects, and instructing the new glut of middle class homeowners on how to create a domestic sanctuary. Subjects such as the history of architecture and general principles of architecture were also perennial topics during this period.

Book page, 'The History of Architecture' by Louisa C. Tuthill
Page from Louisa C. Tuthill’s “The History of Architecture from the Earliest Times: Its Present Conditions in Europe and the Unites States (1848). Special Collections call number: SPEC LARGE NA200 T8 1848

Their writings did not go unnoticed by the professional architecture establishment. Van Rensselaer was praised by the profession and even had her essay “Client and Architecture” recommended for reprint and distribution at an American Institute of Architects (AIA) meeting (1890). She was made an honorary member of the AIA that same year. The tables could quickly turn, however, as they did in 1892 when the AABN panned Van Rensselaer’s book English Cathedrals saying that it “smacks of the magazine and so, almost …of the literary hack.”

The entry of women into an architecture practice that did not center around the domestic sphere would be a gradual one that would eventually make way for renowned critics such as Huxtable and Pritzker-winning starchitects.

Want to know more about women in architecture? Special Collections is home to the International Archive of Women in Architecture. Visit the IAWA page or come see us in person!

**The historical research for this post was culled from Lisa Koenigsberg’s book “Professionalizing domesticity: a tradition of American women writers on architecture, 1848-1913.” and her essay ‘Mariana Van Rensselaer: An architecture critic in context’ published in “Architecture a place for women.” **