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Regarding Sacred Landscapes

Design of Sacred Landscape for a Spiritual Community (1)


Listen closely. Sacred landscapes speak to us, inspiring landscape architects to design places integral to a spiritual path, academic research or even a garden. Sacred landscapes provide guidelines to design in a balanced and harmonious relationship with the natural and social environment.

Designing for a spiritual community in particular is a challenging and rewarding experience, providing opportunities to give physical expression to spiritually and philosophically sound ways of living. Imaginative rendering of such places can transform landscape dreams into enchantment, pure land or heaven on earth. As people cultivate a broadening spiritual awareness of the landscape they articulate harmonious ways to be an integral part, feeling the need for places that accommodate contemplative philosophy, ritual and practice of spiritual activities.

A special vitality is to be found at places identified and protected as natural and designed sacred landscapes. This energy also may be discovered in the midst of intentional communities or centres established for spiritual activity, often located in the vicinity of a sacred landscape, taking advantage of potent life forces. The heightened awareness felt there is due to the concentration and intensity of the respect and commitment to the centre’s viability. However well-meaning the intentions to integrate people’s activities with the operations of nature and life forces flowing through the land, buildings and landscapes intended to merge physical, mental and spiritual realms are significantly less than effective. The design and construction of form and space for spiritual activities leaves much to be desired. Why?

It seems that those involved with its design have not sufficiently cultivated the tools needed to undertake this work. Architects, landscape architects and planners have insufficient background, knowledge and understanding of the vast and wealthy storehouse of information and applied wisdom serving as foundation for designing sacred landscape for a spiritual community.

Likewise, students and teachers engaged in a spiritual life, often rely on simple intuition as they attempt tuning into landscape’s varied languages. There’s insufficient grounding in historical research and precedents, in the background of design tools and approaches of environmental and socially responsible planning, and how to translate spiritually enriched ways of life into landscape. Design cultivated via meditation practices aided by signs received through oracles and divination is not sufficient in the design of sacred landscape for a spiritual community.

Landscape architects have a responsibility to comprehensively broaden an understanding of signs and characteristics of sacred landscapes, and uncover linkages that can be translated and integrated into a design vocabulary recognizable to one's cultural traditions. Landscape architects would best revise the analytical and intuitive methods that are now given unwarranted primary attention to rediscover the making and meaning of form and space of the natural world.

How to proceed along this path? Where to turn for inspiration?

To understand the approaches to design sacred landscapes for spiritual community fundamental questions need be posed: Which mundane and subtle features of landscape enhance contemplation? How and why are particular landscapes identified, designated and invested with sacred qualities? What is to be realized and understood when designing sacred landscapes? What design abilities and spiritual development are best cultivated? Of what tools and techniques must one be aware?

When I initially began this work, I developed a foundation of analytical research and spiritual path upon which to ground my design of landscape for a spiritual community. I took the opportunity to go on pilgrimage for direct experience of landscapes held sacred by practitioners of spiritual traditions.

Direct experience showed that sacred landscapes sustain a spiritual life when respected; incapacitate the spiritual life when it’s not. Those living off the land acquired a humbling regard for the sacred operations of nature. First Nations people long sanctified sacred landscapes as integral components of life, as respected as the air we breathe, water we drink and lands we call home. Others have cultivated awareness through the environmental movements of the last decades, political forces in our society. They all articulate the high priority for identification and protection of sacred landscapes when preparing official plans, and discourage misguided schemes to negatively alter places designated with spiritual value.

I believe that the most inspirational design is grounded by an intimate understanding of natural systems and social factors giving character and profound meaning to the spirit of the landscape. This is strengthened by the designers' sense of well being and visions to clear the mind from delusions, obstructions and ignorance. I believe landscape architects would find this necessary for cultivating any degree of expertise. Those who do will be gratified with joyful reward.