Imagine yourselves a year from now. A lot of us will probably be walking the streets of Spain or Italy, enhancing our architectural education not only through our studio projects, but also through our surroundings. Consider the architectural marvels that will become a part of our everyday lives. Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and The Cathedral of Santa Eulalia in Barcelona; The Saint Lawrence Cathedral and the San Donato in Genoa. Notice that these buildings, some of the most well known structures in their respective cities, are all places of worship.
As a design student, one can start to understand what makes these religious buildings so architecturally meaningful. Through design classes and architectural history classes alike I’ve learned the importance and influence of program and culture on a building’s design. There exists a perpetual tie between architecture and religion. In every great church, temple, mosque, shrine, or synagogue, architecture is used as a bridge to connect the heavenly world to the earthly one. Today I’m going to discuss the influence of religion on the construction methods and program of Scogin, Elam, & Bray’s Chmar House in Atlanta, Georgia.
First, we’ll look at how the Chmar House was built. As practicing followers of the Japanese Mahikari religion, the clients wanted to disturb the wooded site as little as possible. Described as “divine intervention” in Karen Stein’s 1991 Modern American Houses article, it was a fallen tree that cleared the area in which the house now sits. The natural terrain of the site was kept entirely the same. Instead of grading the land, the house was raised onto a series of concrete foundation walls, which were oriented so as to not alter the drainage of the site. This environmentally conscious approach to the house’s construction follows the Mahikarian principle of being at peace with nature, even allowing a stream to run underneath the residence. It’s clear that Mahikarian ideals were considered in the process of building the Chmar House. They are also embodied in the program, the organization of the house’s rooms.
The most important element of the house’s organization is the Goshinden room, where the clients practice the rituals of Mahikari. As described in Mark Morris’s 1998 Domus article, the Goshinden room, which houses the family’s ancestral altar and meditation space, is linked to the outdoors through a “hol(e)y” door. This door allows light, an essential element of Mahikari, to directly enter into the spiritual space. In her 1998 article in the Atlanta Constitution, Catherine Fox describes the movement through the house from the entry to the Goshinden room. After entering through the front door and sitting on built-in benches to remove their shoes, guests travel through a hallway, then through the “heart of the house” before reaching the staircase to the Goshinden room. In the same article, Scogin himself says “Every single line has some relationship to the altar, and how you enter the house and get to the altar.” The central ideas behind the religion of the client shaped the Chmar House’s program, providing a home that, like a well-tailored suit, fits the client perfectly, but perhaps nobody else.
After discussing the religious influence on the method of construction and the program of the Chmar House, it’s clear that the religion of the clients and the architecture of the house are irremovable from one another.