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A Truly Godless Place: Why We Designed a Temple for Atheists

In 2008, two events of international significance took place: the Vatican announced that Islam had overtaken Roman Catholicism as the world’s biggest single religious denomination; and scientists at CERN in Geneva switched on the Large Hadron Collider for the first time, reportedly in search of the ‘God Particle.' Despite the fact that the United Kingdom is becoming more secular, religion still continues to generate debate, particularly when it comes into contact with science.

During this time I was a student of architecture at the Royal College of Art in London, about to embark on my MA thesis project. These two events clearly stuck with me and I spent a year developing a project called Cultivating Faith, in which I investigated the potential for religious texts to be used as design guidance.

The project was intended as a critique of society's tendency to shift and adapt its value systems in order to satisfy its increasing needs. It was also an investigation into whether a more ‘practical’ use could be found for religion.

Concurrently, Alain de Botton was working on a new book entitled Religion for Atheists, with the objective of questioning whether secular society could learn a few lessons from traditional theist practice. Following an introduction through my former professor, Nigel Coates, myself, and fellow Royal College of Art graduate, Jordan Hodgson, were invited to collaborate with De Botton to develop designs for a series of 'temples to atheists,' which would feature in his book.

As such, the projects might be referred to as 'critical design'—the use of design to pose questions rather than to necessarily provide solutions. Our designs for the temples were intended to provoke debate about whether cities could benefit from secular temples.

Through conversations with De Botton it became clear that one of his primary concerns was with secular society's need to be awed. This desire is something that we feel whether or not we subscribe to a faith. As a result, over the past couple of decades, an increasing number of unlikely building types have been asked to deliver a sense of the sublime. The contemporary art museum has been perhaps the most obvious victim of that expectation. Exhibiting art now comes secondary to providing awe inspiring architecture.

One thing that appealed to me about Alain's ideas is the suggestion that our cities might once again support programs that genuinely warrant monumental expression. One journalist who wrote about the designs commented: "If we rediscover the will to build architecture that is explicitly designed to serve our spiritual life, can we at last get back to designing art galleries that are just for looking at pictures in?" I thought this was fairly astute—we are forever looking for excuses to create buildings that address our desire for awe. Why must there be another function to provide the justification?

With the design of the Temple to Perspective, we took our inspiration from science and nature. I am incredibly interested in the work that is currently being done in CERN and was keen to tap into some of the more fundamental questions of life. This led to a building that was designed to represent the entire history of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tower equates to one million years of life, resulting in a building that is 46 meters tall. One meter from the ground would be a band of gold about a millimetre thick—this was to represent the relative existence of humankind.

Other symbolism was also employed to create a sense of awe, or to encourage people to take perspective. An interpretation of the human genome sequence would be inscribed on the outside of the tower—a celebration of one of humankind's greatest achievements, but also a reminder of our fragility. The tower would also taper towards the top to represent the expansion of the universe. We realised that the use of symbolism was key to the design in order to add additional layers of meaning, something that we learned from religious architecture.

We also considered the spectacle of the building, and the process of actual construction. Cathedrals would take hundreds of years to complete. Likewise, our tower was intended to be constructed incredibly slowly. The slowness of construction was used to create a geological/ stratified effect on the interior to the building, while also acting as an antidote to the speed at which the world currently operates.

Although the temples were developed largely without a particular site, or the intention for them to be built, they were nevertheless developed in a surprising level of detail through conversations with the author. Since the publication of the book there has been tremendous debate over the relative merits of building such temples. In this way the designs have served their purpose.

This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship—weekly steps to being an active, engaged global citizen. This week: Be An (Un)Simple Pilgrim. Follow along and join the conversation at and on Twitter at #goodcitizen.


Images courtesy of Tom Greenall

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