The crisscrossed layers and crusts of cultures and landscapes graced by mankind’s built legacies are a source of never-ceasing joy to us all. Yet alarmingly, while the accelerated speed of modern industrialism has brought us a phenomenal reprieve from the drudgery of rural slavery, our landscapes and, even more importantly, the poetics of our cultural heritage are confronting a looming loss. The flow of cultural homogenization is creeping rapidly across the built world. The speed of today’s industrial growth is blanketing a tsunami of poetic loss.
Never has this been more apparent than in our soulless architectural landscape. Auto-driven sprawl, ubiquitous malls, and the excess of one-liner high-rises have plundered our historical spirit from the built environment. There isn’t a country I know of today from Peru, to Nepal, to India, to Ireland, to Finland, and especially the United States, that isn’t struggling with a creeping loss of authenticity. The critical poetics of regional architecture is quietly being lost under the mud of homogenization.
Our historical architectural response to climate and to the human imagination is waning under our massive fossil fuel indulgences. Even more disconcerting in our accelerating globalization is the portending shape of the future, a future where homogenized buildings augmented by nostalgically watered-down exterior decorating will shape our very human character into one monochromatic, bland whisper. Our built environments do shape our character just as much as we do. This new character, or lack thereof, sadly may be as empty as the structures we are building. Already we are filling that feeling of emptiness with an even more vacuous virtual, electronic reality that not only alienates us but, more dreadfully, numbs us to our environment and our fellow humans. Our common stories, our myths, our authentic fiber will continue to fade away if they are not retold and revived in our modern architectural works.
Sacred architecture never fails to be one of the best expediters for such a quest. We all immediately understand design driven by metaphor when it comes to religious architecture. For millennia, from the animists like the Hopi, to the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, to the great world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, all have relied on succinct metaphors to shape their edifices of worship and their heritage. Their spiritual metaphors are at the heart of their messages, and their architecture has always sung their stories. It is why we continue today to design synagogues that collect the minions, cathedrals that mass us together to celebrate the light above, mosques that simply lift us to surrender to God’s greatness, stupas to churn us in the milk of the sea of consciousness. How this human poetic can carry on for the modern world in its own new democratic idiom: this is the heart of the Spirit of Place Expeditions. We need a new way to explore our emerging architecture inspired by the ancients, a way to live in buildings that evoke enduring primordial wisdom.
As these design expeditions unfold, we hope to elicit a singular Socratic question: are there enduring cultural values that can be reinvigorated into the emerging modern architectural landscape We hope to evoke a simple passion for design. We want to open a new direction for our next century, one in which we will improve the glory of modern architecture with a revived humanism. The goal is to create a modern architecture embedded again and again with humanity’s deepest dreams, its richest stories, and the wisdom of its enduring myths. The 22 expeditions to date span over four continents over nearly two decades. You will witness stories about making modern architecture that tells the tales of our souls.
This spirit of place expeditions is not only a voyage to distant lands and diverse cultures with daring and immensely talented young architects. It is not only a groundbreaking educational pedagogy; one that I believe will eclipse the equally imperative “green” movement, it is a true antidote to modern emptiness.
Each expedition came at great expense and hard work by students and patrons alike. The greatest rewards are no doubt seeing the students working with their new-found friends for life while building cultural legacies. The students became true travelers, never to be tourists again. The humanistic rewards are beyond measure. Joyfully in the purist Socratic spirit, the expeditions seek out the modern world’s most challenging question; one that we hope will reopen the door of wonder for designers, one that celebrates humanity’s creative spirit for the twenty-first century’s modern architectural renaissance.
Enjoy these voyages, float in the collective unconscious as it shapes our emerging architecture. Walk in architecture that sings mankind’s tales; find awe in unimaginable shapes that celebrate true character. Rest your soul in a renewed modern sacred space that finds a deeper you—and others—again and again and again.
Travis Price excerpts from “ The Mythic Modern: Architectural Expeditions into the Spirit of Place” Oro Editions
How Spirit of Place – Spirit of Design Works
Founded in 1993 by American Architect and educator, Travis Price, FAIA, Spirit of Place-Spirit of Design is an international design-build education with a cultural exchange curriculum. SOP teaches students to design architecture that responds to the poetic specificity of the culture, mythology, and the ecology of place. For over 20 years, Spirit of Place has been invited by project patrons in a host country to create a ‘legacy marker’ that revitalizes a unique aspect of historic culture celebrating the spirit of place.
The program has resulted in a series of 22 award-winning and widely published projects built by students in local host countries. Projects have taken place in diverse urban and remote locations in Peru, Canada, U.S, Ireland, Nepal, Italy, and Finland. The story of the place is reflected in an emerging piece of modern architecture.
Spirit of Place brings students from schools of architecture and design, all from different countries of the world, to design the project during the spring semester at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. The experience is a 3-credit course for undergraduate and graduate students as part of CUA’s concentration in Cultural Studies and Sacred Space. Following detailed site visits for site selection, research, planning and consultation with community residents, and project patrons, the Spirit of Place program instructors lead the students into an immersion of the mythology, history, culture, and ecology of place. These immersions are the base to design an evocative space that reflects and celebrates the unique cultural spirit of the specific site.
During the design process, students develop metaphoric designs based upon the specific culture and mythology of each place, expressed in a modern idiom, and in a variety of media. The students create their own poetic and sculptural interpretations. From these poetic sculptures they further refine the project into detailed architectural models: both physical and in electronic media, as well as in working construction drawings. Opportunities for public lectures and exhibitions of the student design work are planned in conjunction with the installations, for wider public engagement and education.
For 9 days in the summer, the students are joined by local artisans, local students , and with residents to construct the Spirit of Place installation. Under strenuous conditions, the students work hand in hand with faculty, regional government and non-profit sponsors, as well as local artisans. The impact of this education on the students is invaluable and life-changing. For many students, this hands-on experience is their first exposure to construction techniques, environmental challenges, and cross-cultural immersions. As an innovative methodology blending design education and practice, such work encourages emerging architects to design architecture that responds poetically to the specifics of culture, ecology and the ‘spirit of place.’ This bodes well for their 21st century architectural challenge and the emerging global economy.
Spirit of Place-Design is a clarion call to environmental sustainability and the preservation of historic cultural resources that are the key components of these projects. Through the design and construction of modern metaphorical architectural ‘legacy markers’, Spirit of Place projects reinterpret and reinvigorate cultural heritage and invoke the unique qualities of authenticity in a contemporary design language.
Join Spirit of Place – Spirit of Design
SPIRIT of PLACE / SPIRIT of DESIGN Inc. is a design-build exploration program primarily for architecture students that has become a major environmental and cultural force in reshaping the built environment. The program also affiliates itself with the fields of anthropology, archeology, environment, and all the arts, and has recently been featured in the Smithsonian, Architectural Record, the National Geographic, Apple, and Dwell. Non students are invited to contact Spirit of Place and join us during the design and the build each year. Our Mission to preserve cultural wisdom in Architecture is paramount. Naturally contributions are joyously welcome to the Spirit of Place as a Non-Profit 501 C-3 tax exempt corporation.