The Sacred Art Of Building

Reflections on the creation of harmonious living environments

One of the articles in Sustainable Habitat (IC#14)
Originally published in Autumn 1986 on page 21
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

We need more in our habitat than just technical and social effectiveness. Tom Bender approaches this subject from a long history of innovative work with architecture and appropriate technology. He was one of the early editors of Rain, that wonderful journal of appropriate technology and community development (1135 SE Salmon, Portland, OR 97214, $18/yr), and author of the Environmental Design Primer. He now lives on the Oregon coast.

OF SUBTLE YET VAST IMPORTANCE are the collective psychological and spiritual impacts of our actions. They are essential for nurturing the bonds of dignity, self-esteem, mutual respect, and love which hold together and sustain a society. They alone can marshall to positive ends both our inner resources and the powerful technologies we have developed. The more we turn our eyes to the stars, the more crucial are our roots in the primal forces of life which have shaped our nature. Only these inner dimensions of our actions can keep our roots alive and our actions within the bounds of the sustainable future before us.

The values we unavoidably impart to our surroundings affect our lives more powerfully than any other aspect of the places we make or use. Compared to our natural surroundings, our "built" environments often feel lifeless, sterile and unfulfilling. Yet we sometimes stumble onto one of those rare places, a remote farmhouse, a forgotten temple garden, a simple barn, or sometimes a famous cathedral, that bring us into powerful contact with the primal forces of our world. They make our hearts overflow as much as a grove of ancient redwoods or a mountaintop sunrise does. We know then with certainty that our surroundings, and how we shape them, can powerfully move our hearts. They can give deep nourishment to our lives and provide us in many ways with concrete visions of what is needed and possible in all our actions.


A city is more than a place to work, and a home is more than a place to lay our heads. Our places always reflect how we see the universe around us. As we perceive a certain harmony in our surroundings and reinforce that harmony in our building, we also strengthen our confidence in an underlying harmony and rightness in the universe and in our ability to positively influence the mysterious forces affecting our lives. A 20th-century skyscraper, a Navajo hogan, an African kraal or a Renaissance city all reflect a special view of the universe, consistent with the beliefs and the world their builders dreamed into being.

A life-energy came to the Khmer builders of Angkor Wat in Cambodia from their gods, through their rule, and into their lands. To distribute that energy, they linked their ruler’s palace to the entire countryside with a cosmic geometry of irrigation and drainage channels and lakes. While harnessing the flood waters of the Tonle Sap and ensuring the success of their crops, they also visibly tied their entire countryside and their source of food to the life-energy sources of their temples and palaces.

Chinese tradition locates and designs homes, cities and tombs in alignment with energy currents in the earth. I at first considered it part of a curious though aesthetically successful folklore. Then I discovered a geophysical basis to it in research outlining how our sun’s radiations create energy fields in the atmosphere and in the earth’s mantle. More recent research linked to the space program has documented in great detail both the extra- terrestrial influences upon these forces in the earth and the considerable effects such minute electromagnetic fields have on our bodies and all life.

As I researched this practice, called feng-shui, I recalled the feeling of extraordinary happiness I had repeatedly experienced at certain temples in Japan, such as the precipitously sited Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. It turned out that Japanese temples, as well as Hawaiian birthing places and the oldest English cathedrals, were also located by divination in harmony with the earth’s energy fields.

The feng-shui tradition creates a subtle yet powerful harmony between buildings and the landscape they are part of. Aspects of the practice echo good ecology, good design, and good psychology as well as good "energy." Equally important, they ensure that we bring our buildings, our beliefs, and our understandings of the cosmos into alignment with one another.

Ornament also provides us an opportunity, free of the constraints that apply to other aspects of construction, to infuse a building with a sense of cosmic order. The delicate interlacing geometries of Islamic ornament reflect the unfolding of the limitless forms of creation from a single source, as well as the eternally transforming relationships that tie together all of creation. The sculpture of a Scandinavian stave church or a French gothic cathedral reflects their society’s view of their universe, as purely and powerfully as does the spareness of Shaker or Japanese design.

Aligning our buildings with our sense of the universe gives us the opportunity to affirm and clarify our beliefs. It strengthens those beliefs and our resolve to keep our actions in positive concert with them. And it renews within us the wonder and joy of being part of an awesome and incredible creation.


When we live close to our natural surroundings, we come to know and love them deeply and to build in ways which reflect our sense of joy in being a part of them. Our buildings come to connect us to, rather than isolate us from, the natural forces of the place, and they take their own form from the special spirit of the region which arises from its unique climate, geography and community of living things. Such buildings vent or hoard heat as needed in each climate. They shade or welcome the sun and wind, depending on the needs of each particular place. Their palette of color is attuned to the space-filling white light of snow country, the pastels of fog country, the green light of the forest, or the golden sunsets of the tropics. They know their world and are fully a part of it.

Winter in the Northwest is endless, wet, and dreary, as oppressive as the burning summer heat of the Southwest deserts. Yet the oppressive Northwest winter is transformed when we walk in the silent mist- filled and moss-covered forests that once covered the region. The endless maritime rain finds meaning and value in the lush and towering forests in the bountiful life that it brings into being as nowhere else on earth. The overpowering heat and dryness of the desert finds meaning and acceptance in what it in turn makes possible. The solitude and freedom from distractions of more peopled places, the overpowering sense of stellar space and time of the brilliant starlit nights, the epochal sense of geological duration and change that arises from an earth unencumbered by a profusion of life – these are sensed nowhere else with the same power and intensity.

Paolo Soleri’s wonderful Cosanti residence in the Arizona desert is made of earth-covered concrete domes and vaults, nestled into and of the material of the desert. The earth tempers the heat of the day and the cold of the night. The vaults shade from the sun or wind, yet open to the sky. There people, like other inhabitants of the desert, retreat to the coolness of the ground in the day and come forth for the business of evening, night, and dawn. Northwest homes of log and cedar shingles, with wide, sheltering roofs, nestle almost unseen among the great dripping conifers, protected from, yet celebrating, the endless rain, and snugly warm in the sunlight when it does appear.

The seed of Persian dwellings, and their image of Paradise, is not a building but a garden, a cool and verdant oasis in the desert. In a traditional Japanese house, people insulate themselves in quilts rather than closing off their homes and sit on the veranda listening to the silent fall of snow around them. The screen-houses of Cape Hatteras open to the summer breeze, but not to the bugs.

A good building also keeps its inhabitants in touch with the rising and setting of the sun and moon and the cartwheels of the stars across our skies. We stay aware of how the moon moves the tides of our feelings in harmony with those of the ocean. Being in touch with the sunrise and sunset, we stay in touch with the rhythms of work and rest in nature, rhythms of giving and absorbing that are important to acknowledge for our own health. Changes in the sky and air give us clues to change in barometric pressure and humidity that affect shifts in our moods. A good building keeps a healthy native environment around it so we learn the attributes and oddities of life long adapted to our particular place. With window seats, doorsteps, verandas, porches and outdoor rooms, it gives us places to live and work that nestle between protection and contact with our surroundings.


Until recently, the design of our surroundings was considered too important to leave to the aesthetic conjurings of architects. The design of homes was firmly embedded in spiritual traditions so their making, orientation, and features would embody how people saw their universe, their world, and their place in it. Important government and religious buildings were designed only out of living spiritual training, ensuring that they clearly manifested and reinforced good relationships among people and between people and their beliefs. In addition to ensuring the proper design of the buildings, the traditional process of conceiving and constructing a building has provided, in many cultures, an important means for spiritual development of the workers.

The painter of a Tibetan thanka, designer of an Indian temple, maker of Christian sculpture, or carpenter of a Japanese temple all follow a similar process of preparation and action. All of the needs and relationships are carefully studied. The designer then meditates upon what is being designed, allowing unconscious processes to meld all the complex demands into a coherent and powerful whole. Then "the temple is built in a single night"; a vision comes, complete in all detail and spirit, of the temple or sculpture or woodwork. That vision remains as a touchstone throughout the process of construction, giving a clear and precise template to which work is compared as it proceeds. The vision and the giving form to the abstract relationships embodied in the work provides a vehicle for the worker’s spiritual and artistic development and for feedback on its achievements and failings, as well as for inspiration to others.

At the Ise Shrine in Japan, the construction process itself has developed into a unique vehicle for spiritual training. The buildings undergo a continuous cycle of regular replacement with new ones every twenty years. Construction is simple. Posts are set directly into the ground, walls built of solid planks, and roof thatched only once, when new. Once consecrated, the buildings are left untouched until an exact replacement is built twenty years later. The process of birth, death, and renewal, of each creation having its given span of life, has direct expression in the structure of the shrine itself.

While the buildings have not become more permanent or sophisticated, the quality of their making has become almost ethereal. The surfaces of simple timbers are planed to grasslike smoothness. Joints are as true as if of one piece. Each act of its making – from growing the trees to their selection, cutting, working and placement – has been imbued for a millennium with such purity and mindfulness of action and total understanding of worker, tools, materials and purpose, that it draws the breath away in awe. It is a development of technique far different from aesthetic refinement, one that sustains the spiritual power of the builders as well as the building. It is a process whose timeless power far overshadows our meager ways of building.


What are some of the central attitudes that thread through this deeper way of building? A tree root once opened my eyes to the many ways our buildings deny the seamless web of love, awe and respect that is part of the sacredness of our world. I found the old, twisted spruce root on the beach after a storm, dragged it home, and eventually made it into the front door handle on our home. Its gnarled shape, silhouetted against the soft light from inside, held my attention every night as I came in from the dark.

Part of the root’s specialness, I discovered, was that it still held the history of its past life. Most building materials, once processed and in place, have lost most of their history except perhaps the surface grain on a board or the crystal patterns in the rock. The contortions of an old storm-swept tree, like the wrinkles and stoops of an old person, tell of the adventures and struggles of its life, and is worth sharing. There is a beauty in that history and those shapes, a value in honoring those lives that have been given up into the making of our buildings.

The concept of honoring others goes far beyond how we use materials. One of our most basic human needs is to feel of value to others, to have a sense of self-worth, human dignity and meaning to our lives. Yet how do we honor and respect the dignity and self-worth of others when we build or furnish our buildings? Do we give the carpenters, masons, and furniture makers any latitude to do their best rather than their least, or any encouragement to put their hearts instead of just their time into their work?

How we arrange and use the insides of our home also conveys what we honor most highly. The English build a parlor to honor guests. The Japanese place an honored guest at a meal in front of their tokonoma so that others will associate the guest with the specialness of the flowers and art. Many Americans arrange their living rooms around a TV like worshipers around an altar, while the warmth of a fire has been the heart of homes through the ages.

In using the traditional design wisdom of a region, we honor the work, insights, and hard lessons of the past. By planting trees, we honor a will to have a future. Providing opportunity for birds to nest, wildflowers to grow, and squirrels to play, we honor the other lives with which we share our world. Whatever we honor – whether a TV or automobile or guest, art collection, children or a good cook – takes a central and special place in the way we design and use our buildings, and speaks clearly of where we place our values.


Particularly in a wealthy society like ours, we need to be reminded that what we leave out of a building can be as important as what we put into it. The trappings of comfort, convenience and luxury often stand in the way of simplicity, peacefulness, and harmony. Richness and obvious beauty are not necessarily the best and deepest ways to move our hearts, and learning to let loose of our limitless desires is as essential in our building as in our lives. Lao Tzu long ago reminded us that emptiness is the essence of a teacup, and that the shaping and forming of empty space is the essence of making both a room and a window.

Some things need to be discovered, not pointed to. A low wall can turn into a comfortable seat when needed, yet not be noticed when a seat isn’t wanted. A building that shouts for attention soon becomes tiresome, because we need to actively put ourselves into discovering, absorbing and finding meaning in things for any depth of experience or usable understanding to emerge. A good building, like a new friend, is not knowable all at once. It continually shows new facets of itself, while others sink temporarily out of our awareness.

Sensitive design is invisible. It results in a room with the emptiness of Lao Tzu’s teacup, not the bleakness of a jail cell. Non-essentials fade into the background, and our attention is focussed clearly and fully on people, our relations with each other, with nature, and with the rhythms and events of the day. Service is the goal of a building and its furnishings. Unobtrusive surroundings provide the quietude to absorb, digest, and embrace the world with our deeper mental processes. Such discipline gives a sense of comfort and rightness to a space.

I discovered late one night at the Taj Mahal that silence similarly can be an essential part of the "music" of our surroundings. As the last tourists had left, I suddenly found myself alone inside the dome room. It became quiet, and the silence in the dome swelled to fill the majestic space. Even the sound of my breathing echoed, and as it settled into silence, it focussed me deeper and deeper into stillness. The silence was as eloquent as the finest music and penetrated into the core of my being. All the richness and beauty of the Taj was nothing, compared to the power of its eloquent silence.

We need to stop occasionally and truly listen to our surroundings. How often does half-ignored music, mechanical equipment noise or other unwanted sound dominate our places? The quieting of unwanted "music" and making space for the welcome natural sounds of life can be one of the most important contributors to the peaceful feeling of our buildings.


Every building that truly moves our hearts conveys one message over all: of the unhindered pouring forth of love and energy that has gone into its making. This is the boundless energy of a universe that creates in exquisite detail and variety even its smallest and least significant element. It is the love and perfection, as Wendell Berry notes, that an old woman pours into an intricate piece of crochet work she knows she will never live to finish. This unstinted giving is found in the hidden parts of Gothic cathedrals work whose perfection is visible "only to the eyes of God" and to the heart of the builder. It spills forth in the exuberant carving of Indian temples or the intricate design of Persian carpets. It lies like a blinding white light within the spareness and purity of a Shinto shrine or Shaker chair, or in the embracing warm glow of a country hearth.

In some cultures this attitude of giving has been developed to great heights. Many temples of India are scarcely more than a spiritually-centered framework to fill with sculpture. The temple construction is made possible through the giving of donors, and the sculpture itself is created as an act of devotion, offering, and spiritual growth by the worker. Once in use, the temple is never repaired, but allowed to return to dust in its own time. The giving, not the gift, is what is of vital importance, and others must have their opportunity to reap its reward themselves.

Such an act of love or giving is the single most powerful act in the making or use of a place and is not restricted to temples or religious practices. The extra touch put into a door by its builder, the love with which a new marriage bed is built, the window added to see a favorite tree outside, all echo that love long beyond the lives of the makers. The most mundane building can be transformed through the spirit with which it is used, expressed in the flowers of the window, the well-scrubbed doorstep, or the smell of fresh-baked bread. What counts is that someone designing, building, paying for or using it has done the best, not the least, they could. And that comes not from necessity, but only out of love.

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