BY DESIGN: The relevance of sacred architecture in the modern world

By Design

The Taj Mahal, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Parthenon — they’re all are world famous places for worship and spirituality. They’ve also stood the test of time and one thing they have in common is domes.

So how about when this concept comes right to your neighborhood – could it be done and could it fit in.

CGTN’s Mark Niu reports from Northern California where that idea has become a reality.

When local residents saw this plan by the spiritual order Sufism Reoreinted to be built in their neighborhood – many were up in arms.

“Anything new always generates a certain amount of opposition. If you look at everything from the Golden Gate Bridge, strongly opposed when started to almost everything else, that’s a kind of energy in a sense that is the hallmark of good change,” said Bob Carpenter, Project Director of Sufism Reoriented.

Despite opposition, more than a decade later, those seemingly futuristic plans became a reality in this neighborhood of Walnut Creek, California.

One reason why is that the from a street view, the 13-interlocking domes surprisingly blend in with the neighborhood.

County restrictions said the domes to be no more than about ten meters.

See how a building is designed to last 700 years

In order to have enough living space, designers decided to move the construction underground. So the garden is now the roof.

“We’re on top of the entire concourse. It’s a 22,000 square foot roof that you’re standing on,” said Carpenter as we walked along the garden. “It’s made possible by the invention of lightweight product called misapor which is a recycled glass, comes in a shape like gravel, but it nests together so the water can go through it to the drainage below so it doesn’t absorb water.”

A skylight dome gives a peek from above, and also leads down to the main concourse.

“Two-thirds of the concourse is underground, about 44,000 square feet. The distance from here to the west end is 273 feet, almost the length of the football field,” said Carpenter.

Three hundred fifty members of Sufism Reoriented come to this non-denominational spiritual sanctuary and school.

In the rotunda, you’ll find a mural of the late Indian founder of Sufism Reoriented, Meher Baba, who said he wanted Sufism to be on safe footing until his next incarnation in 700 years.

“We took him quite literally at that and when we brought our designers together, the first criteria we gave them, was we had to have a building that would last 700 years. Well, there was a pause and some laughter, then when they realized we were serious, they got down to the business of showing us how that could be done,” said Carpenter.

Ritchie was partners with the famous late architect Philip Johnson, whose work at the Museum of Pre-Colombian art in Washington DC caught the attention of Sufism Reoriented’s spiritual director.

“I say if you are going to do it, it has to have a strength to it, a powerful statement, a powerful force,” said Ritchie. “Domes are the most structural shape or form you can build from. To that point of view domes are to me timeless.”

With double crystallized marble and rebar interwoven into the walls, engineers made sure to go above and beyond construction codes.

That precision was on display during construction when workers hoisted in a 12-meter bronze sculpture called the New Being.

The sculpture is built on top of an anti-seismic base isolator, the technology used in skyscrapers like the Bank of America Tower in San Francisco.
If an earthquake were to strike, the sculpture would slide back and forth as opposed to toppling over.

Inside, you’ll also find state of the art technology. The prayer hall has a spitz dome – the same tech used for projecting images of stars at planetariums. Here it’s used for presentations and performances.

In the library, there are no physical books. It’s all digital. The kitchen was designed by Sufism Reoriented member and owner of the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain, David Overton – who made sure to fill it with top-notch equipment.

“To master the use of matter and then to put that use and matter to the use of divinity and the use of God,” said Deitrick” “One way that one glorifies God is making something as beautiful possible with every possible concern of detail and perfection, symmetry and harmony.”

“I don’t think you’ll find anything else built like it in the world,” said Ritchie. When you look at it, It’s a piece of sculpture, it’s a building, it’s a habitable sculpture. “It’s totally integrated with day to day life and at the same time, you can stay back and say this is a freestanding form in it’s own rights.”

Leaders of Sufi Reoriented say the design is ultimately about uplifting the spirit in a sanctuary that also aspires to stand the test of time.

Andrew Crompton talks about sacred architecture

CGTN’s Rachelle Akuffo spoke to Anthony Crompton from the University of Liverpool to talk about religious design and sacred architecture from the early ages to the modern era.