Designing Sacred Space
BY MICHAEL HAUPTMAN
The sanctuary of the synagogue that we belonged to when I was growing up had huge windows on both sides of the room. The sills were high enough so that passing cars and people were shielded from view, but sky and trees were always present. The changing light, the turning leaves, the falling snow all melded with the words, the music, and the ritual that formed my personal interpretation of sacredness.
It is no wonder, then, that as an architect whose firm specializes in the design of synagogues, I include windows and the views they provide as essential ingredients in the creation of sacred space. A window, in fact, is Jewish law’s only requirement in the design of a sanctuary. I have found, in discussions with building committees and in congregational workshops, that the Ark and its contents often becomes the focus of sacredness. The symbolism is both elemental and powerful. But despite an architect’s best efforts, the reflection of sacredness in an Ark’s design is entirely subjective. I believe, though, that the subtle and subliminal effects that a well-placed window provides can tie all of the more conventional elements of a worship space together into a powerful, emotional, and personal sacred experience.
The design of our very first from-the-ground-up synagogue was for a small congregation in the Philadelphia suburbs. The proposed sanctuary design, which became somewhat controversial, showed floor-to-ceiling windows along the sanctuary’s entire south wall. Some thought the space should be more inward-looking and that having so much glass would be a distraction. The building was ultimately constructed as we had initially proposed. I was told by a member of the building committee that during their first Shabbat service in the new sanctuary, a deer wandered by outside and paused to look at the congregation before it moved on. He told me it was a magical moment that convinced him that they had made the right design decision. And through the collective experience of the congregation, the words, the music, the occasion, and the architecture, all contributed to making their new sanctuary a sacred space.
A clarifying moment for me was when we were invited to submit a proposal for design services for a merged congregation in St. Louis. They were about to purchase a vacant high school to renovate as their new synagogue. They envisioned the school’s gymnasium to be repurposed as their new sanctuary. In getting ready for my presentation to the selection committee, I was preparing to respond to questions they had sent ahead about how we would go about redesigning a gym to be sacred space.
I discovered that I would be making my presentation the week that Torah portion Vayetzei was read, the chapter in Genesis containing the story of Jacob’s ladder. That portion tells us that Jacob wakes up from his famous dream and says, “God was in this place, and I did not know it.” Using that story as the basis for discussion, I asked the questions “How do we turn a secular, conventional school building into a synagogue? How does a gymnasium become a worship space? What makes space sacred?” The answer, I said, was “You do.”
Majestic temples of soaring spaces and stained glass, clandestine basements in squalid ghettos, or a wilderness resting place using a rock as a pillow can all be sacred spaces. After more than twenty-five years of working with synagogue groups on the design of their buildings, I find that every congregation has its own personality, and every congregant had their own interpretation of sacredness. Ultimately, it is the individual who, through their beliefs, their ritual, and their emotions can elevate their environment to reach a level of sacredness. I came to understand that it was my job as architect to uncover, through discussions and illustrations, each congregation’s thoughts about what makes space sacred and how my own experience and beliefs could help them achieve the meaning that they were seeking in their building.
I give them a window. The rest is up to them.