Effects of Catholic Sacred Architecture on Transformative Human Experience

A (Re)evaluation of Evidence-Based Design through an Empirical Test of a Conceptual Model

Ritual-Architectural Event

THESIS:  Julio Bermudez, Ph.D., Advocate; Michelle Rinehart, Ed.D., Reader; Mark McInturff, FAIA, Reader – Catholic University of America, 2012-2013

The Walton Distinguished Thesis Award, 2013
Thesis Honor – Super Jury Finalist, 2013
Commendation for Thesis Research, 2012

This study looks at the effects of Catholic sacred architecture on transformative human experience by exploring the connections between subjective human responses and objective built conditions at the Pantheon, Chartres Cathedral, and the Chapel at Ronchamp. Evidence based design is (re)evaluated for sacred spaces by conducting an empirical test of Lindsay Jones’ conceptual model using mixed methods.

selection of ritual contexts
The purpose of this research is to expand the knowledge of sacred architecture by bridging the gap between the “subjective” phenomenology of human experience and architecture’s “objective” built conditions. The research employs mixed methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis of survey data as well as graphical analysis of specific case studies. The analyses from these methods demonstrate the importance, relevance, and compatibility of Lindsay Jones’ conceptual model or “morphology of ritual architectural priorities” when (re)designing sacred spaces.

graphical analysis example
Design professionals and religious specialists can improve the experience of sacred architecture by incorporating Jones’ conceptual model within the evidence-based design process. A preliminary survey tool, designed using Jones’ categories, was tested against a non-probability sample of respondents (N=112). In general, the survey can be replicated case by case to identify which categories of sacred space are important for different user groups – an essential part of programming and pre-design. As top design priorities are identified and converted into research questions, information and evidence are collected. Evidence of people’s actual (i.e., real, lived) “subjective” experiences that occur within specific cases of Catholic sacred architecture are derived from Julio Bermudez’s large survey database (N=2,872) of “extraordinary architectural experiences.” In addition, graphical analysis and interpretation of the “objective” built conditions are conducted for each case study. The empirical data for both “subjective” and “objective” conditions are then compared in order to test Jones’ conceptual model. For example, does a sacred space built with “XYZ” category actually result in “XYZ” experience?

Case study selection-objective
The study concludes that built environments possessing a higher presence and quality of Jones’ “morphology of ritual-architectural priorities” in the “objective,” built conditions are more likely to be perceived as sacred, produce extraordinary experiences, and transform human understanding. Meanwhile, the opposite is also plausible. Evidence-based design for sacred architecture and transformative human experience demand more attention from scholarly inquiry.

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