Sacred Space: Looking at the world differently

Sacred Space: Looking at the world differently

October 31, 2001
Written by Staff Reports

San Pedro Excanela, Querétaro, Mexico. Carolyn Brown photo.


What is it that converts ordinary space into "sacred space"? Many congregations, whether building, repairing or adding on to their building space, wrestle with this question.

One such congregation is the United Church of Santa Fe in Santa Fe, N.M. The following dialogue sermon occurred there on July 15, 2001, between the pastor, the Rev. Talitha Arnold, and Craig Hoopes, principle architect and owner of Craig Hoopes and Associates. That firm designed a master plan for the expansion and renovation of the church's facilities. It is now managing the second phase of the plan.

Talitha Arnold:  Four years ago, the United Church of Santa Fe needed to build. We'd outgrown our children's space and were using a trailer for nursery care. We had no place for Adult Education or Youth Ministry. There were only two bathrooms for a congregation of 250 people, and despite having two services on Sunday, the sanctuary had been uncomfortably full for several years.

But before we broke ground for anything, we knew we needed an overall Master Building Plan, to see what was possible on our 3 1/3 acres and also to consider what God might be calling us to do in terms of growing this church.

The Master Plan Team interviewed three architects and chose Craig Hoopes. Among his many projects, Craig had redesigned a Catholic high school and seminary into a performing arts space. He also had designed the expansion and renovation of the chapel, library and public spaces of a Catholic monastery.

When the Master Plan Team first met with Craig, many members, including me, expected him to get to work right away, addressing our urgent needs and showing us where the nursery should go and just how many bathrooms we should have.

He didn't do that. He didn't talk about bathrooms or nurseries or parking lots. Instead his very first question to us was, "When does the experience of worship begin for you?"

I knew in that moment that we had hired the right person to build this church.

For the last four years, through many designs and innumerable details, Craig's question has been our plumb line.

What about you?

So today, Craig, I'd like to begin by asking you your own question, "Where does your experience of worship begin?"

Craig Hoopes: For me, I think it starts when I am mentally preparing to go to church, before I ever leave home. There is the moment when I wake up in the morning and I realize that I am going to worship, and the process of coming here starts. Getting ready, wondering what the day will bring, driving here with my expectations and hopes.

The next stage begins when I pull into the driveway. All of a sudden I am here, at church. There is a sense of procession and ceremony and arrival—those things that start to separate me from the world outside.

It is that separation that gives me a chance to think about my relationship with God and my relationship with the world. Without that transition or sequence—if we were to suddenly step into church—we wouldn't have the chance to really enter into reflection on what coming here is about.

When we began the Master Plan, that's how we started to look at it. What is happening out there that gets us to this place in here.

Talitha Arnold: So what does the entrance to a church say?

Craig Hoopes: Lots of things—but mainly it says whether or not I'm welcome. Is the entrance accessible? Is it spacious and does it allow for just for gathering and talking? Or does it funnel me into the sanctuary with no opportunity to shift gears or greet friends.

We generally think of only the sanctuary as sacred space, but in fact the whole church—the children's rooms, the offices, even the hallways—tell the story of the congregation.

You can read architecture. It's a different "read" than a book, but if you take time to really look at and experience a place, you can read a building—and learn the story of the congregation, what they believe about God, themselves, other people.

Each church is different, of course. Obviously a huge cathedral says something different than an intimate chapel in the country. Each church has a story to tell. Even within the same denomination, there are often many variations among churches. And different religious traditions have very different kinds of architecture.

Talitha Arnold: So, for example a Gothic Catholic cathedral is laid out linearly, straight lines leading to the central altar. That tells us both the understanding of God and of the relationship between the congregation, the clergy, and God. In contrast a New England meeting house (one of the traditions of the United Church of Christ) has more of a gathering kind of space. That was the intent when the United Church of Santa Fe built this first building. In fact, the sanctuary was first called a "gathering room."

Craig Hoopes: Coming into this church you can sense that. The space gathers you in. In the expansion and redesign, we wanted to retain that feeling, of the space encircling you like arms gathering you in.

The earth colors, the wood tones, the adobe all reflected the connection the congregation felt to the landscape of this area.

There is also a simplicity and quietness in this church that is different than a lot of other churches.

Talitha Arnold: That simplicity and quietness is also a part of the United Church tradition. But let's move back from this church and go to your own story. What was your first experience of sacred space?

The first time

Craig Hoopes: It may sound very strange, but my first experience of sacred space was a pile of dirt. I was about ten years old and across the street from where I lived was a site for a new school. When they began to excavate the earth for the new buildings, all of a sudden I looked at earth in a different way. I could see the structure of the earth, the layers. I could see things that had been hidden forming before me. It was a revelation. That pile of dirt made me realize that the world could be looked at differently than what I had been used to.

If I were to state when I decided to be an architect, it would be that moment.

Talitha Arnold: So whether it is a pile of dirt or a sanctuary, what for you makes a space sacred?

Craig Hoopes: I think sacredness comes out of that chance to look at the world differently, a chance for us to reflect about the world around us. It can come during a walk on the beach, it can be experiencing a great piece of architecture, it can be a hike in the woods. Anything that shifts our point of view and gets us out of our everyday life is, to me, something that brings sacredness to our lives.

Sacred space can humble us or exalt us or both. Mainly it changes us by changing our perspective, if only for a moment.

Because the moment we do that—the moment we step outside our everyday life—is the moment we shift in our relationship to the world. We begin to really look at God and everything that has been created around us.

Sacred space allows us to look at things—be it light or color, our lives or this world—differently. It invites us to go below the surface, be it to see the layers of a pile of dirt or the layers of our own lives. It invites us to consider the mystery and makes us wonder about ordinary things like light and shadow.

Sacred space has depth and dimension, so it invites us to wonder what's around the next corner.

Talitha Arnold: In designing the master plan, you encouraged us to develop that sense of the sacred not only in the sanctuary but throughout the whole church. The new nursery, for example, wasn't the traditional basement room for children. Instead it's filled with light, and you made sure the windows were toddler height.

Craig Hoopes: We also put a "floating wall" at the end of the hallway leading to the nursery.

Talitha Arnold: Which means?

Craig Hoopes: You "float" a wall by putting a skylight or windows at the very top so that the source of light isn't direct. Instead the light plays off the wall and makes you think about where it's coming from. It creates a sense of wonder.

Talitha Arnold: Even in a hallway.

Craig Hoopes: Right. One should always feel that there is something around the corner, be it in our physical or spiritual life.

Talitha Arnold: Okay, that's a way of dealing with a wall. How do you approach the other practical elements of a building to enhance a sense of the sacred?

Craig Hoopes: Take a window, for example. Windows were originally needed to provide light and air. But technology—electric lights and air conditioning—has freed us from the practical reasons why windows were invented. So now windows can be used in a different way.

Like many pieces of architecture, a window operates on many different levels. A window sets the context for where we are. It also gives us the chance to look outside, to reach beyond where we are. And perhaps it even gives us the chance to look inside—in ourselves to see a select moment in our lives.

Give ourselves over

Talitha Arnold: In our covenant as the United Church of Santa Fe, we promise to "give ourselves to its challenges and opportunities." From an architectural standpoint, what were some of those?

Craig Hoopes: The first challenge was that the first building—the sanctuary—was designed as a contained structure, with no design to expand. The second challenge was that the second building—the education room—really didn't have much relationship to the first. They just happened to be on the same ground. So how do you take two, non-related existing buildings, pull them together, and add the new buildings you need in a way that is meaningful to the community?

Talitha Arnold: How did you? What were the organizing principles for the master plan?

Craig Hoopes: We wanted to keep the experience of coming to this intimate and welcoming space. At the same time, we had to address all the future needs of the congregation, including the need for a new sanctuary at some point in time and the need for adequate parking. The size and shape of the site and the placement of the original buildings dictated where the sanctuary and the parking would have to go—and that was fairly far apart.

But as I said, we also wanted to keep the sense of intimacy. It's like a pair of arms wrapping around the congregation. Once we came in from the parking lot, then there seemed to be a chance to create a central space around which everything would revolve.

As we worked on the master plan, that central space turned into a courtyard, surrounded by the new entrance and narthex, the different educational spaces, the old sanctuary which would become a fellowship hall, and eventually the new sanctuary.

The central courtyard offered several things. First, it gave us a chance to create an internal meditative space and keep that sense of intimacy as people moved from the narthex toward the sanctuary. Second, it was a space that could be approached from many different directions—and parts of the building, like education, fellowship, and worship. My view of "United" is a church where God is approached from many different directions. We are all coming to God from different angles and ways of looking at things, and the church should reflect that. United is not a formal axial space like a cathedral where someone walks only in a straight line to get to God. The architecture here can accommodate everybody's different approach. We wanted to create a space for that to happen.

Talitha Arnold: We are now four years into this master plan process and in a different stage than when we began. What do we need to remember as we move through the process?

Keep big picture

Craig Hoopes: First, keep the big picture in mind. In the midst of the minutia, remember there is an overall design and purpose. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the multitude of decisions about windows or electrical outlets or paint or carpet. But those are all means to an end, and the end is the creation of a sacred, inviting, and welcoming space where people can experience the presence of God.

Second, know that a master plan can and does change. It's a road map. We're trying to get to an end that will meet both the practical and the spiritual needs of the congregation. But whether we take the road that goes to the left or the road that goes to the right, along the way is not really that important. It's just that we keep the goals in sight and understand where we are going.

And finally, perhaps most important, what we're doing is more than just building a building. We're also creating—building, if you will—a new experience of God and of being a people gathered by God. Winston Churchill said, "First we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us." I think that is very true. We need to let ourselves be shaped by this process, to be open to the newness of the space, new ways of worship, new ways of knowing ourselves and knowing God.

Learn more

To discuss "sacred space" with architect Craig Hoopes and the Rev. Talitha Arnold, please click here.

The American Institute of Architects has a professional interest area titled "Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture" (IFRAA), that sponsors conferences. It also publishes a quarterly journal called "Faith and Form," edited by Michael Crosbie, Ph.D., RA. Their website is; e-mail

Though United Church of Santa Fe pastor Talitha Arnold cautions that "it needs to be updated," she encourages web users to visit the church website at

The work of Dallas-based photographer Carolyn Brown is featured in a traveling exhibition "Sacred Space: Man and the Divine in Mexico, Central America, and the Southwestern United States," scheduled for Denver in 2002. A web gallery is located at

Please review our Community Guidelines before posting a comment. If you have any questions, contact us.

Section Menu