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Sacred Spaces

Special places can serve as cornerstones for building lifelong connections
University Business, Feb 2010

In our current economic environment, critical funding for an array of essential entities and institutions has dried up, leaving a momentous gap between budget needs and realities. Universities are certainly no exception to this phenomenon. Even Harvard is feeling the pinch. The university had reported a 30 percent decline in its endowment for the fiscal year ending June 2009.

So the question presents itself: What can universities do to throw out a larger net and create a new class and type of donor? The short answer: sacred spaces.

What is that special place you think about in the twilight of sleep, at the stirring of a school song or during the sweet memories of youth's first kiss? We all have these special places, as did Thomas Jefferson. We will use the story of Jefferson because in his last years he would create and design the prototype of the modern American university, the University of Virginia, the school against which all other universities would be compared.

Universities are products of history and tradition. They are sites of memory and meaning comprised of cultural spaces host to decades and often centuries of ritual.

To begin a journey in places, there must be some context and tools to guide the way—and the journey is a major factor in the differences between schools. There is a distinct difference in the context or experience of the commuter campus and more formally designed university campus, or academic village, as Jefferson would call it.

Universities are products of history and tradition. They are not only institutions of scholarly learning but also sites of memory and meaning comprised of cultural spaces host to decades and often centuries of ritual. At any typical commuter campus, a student's college experience is primarily limited to the time driving to campus, and the on-campus experience is basically limited to the trip from the car to class. The distance students may travel might be 100 feet, but probably not more than 900 feet. This takes away the experience of transmigrating through a campus: an eclectic and robust experience marked by new and exciting places, meeting people and touching the very heart of a university.

Without the ability and time to walk, talk, laugh, stress, and socially interact on campus, the collegiate experience is gone. It is the university as a place, and not a collection of buildings, that creates memories for students, and it is the connective tissue between buildings—the landscape—in which we find sacred spaces.

The word sacred defines a human purpose and response to an experience that is considered sacrosanct. Our purpose, then, is the pursuit of that which is sacred. This is undoubtedly connected to matters religious (with a small r); the etymology of religion is from the Latin term religio, to reconnect. Thus, anything that reconnects us is, inherently, a religious or deeply personal spiritual experience that has great meaning, and the university campus is ripe with opportunities to reconnect for people of all ages.

There are five distinct phenomena that shape every individual's personal development and maturation. These defining elements include events in life (we are all shaped by experiences that affect society at large, e.g., Vietnam, 9/11.); the process of enculturation (the values, beliefs, and life skills learned from family provide a foundation for moral and ethical behavior); life stage (graduation, marriage, first job, etc., all are critical stages in self-development); media consumed (shapes the context of one's life); and the opinions one respects (the people we emulate and respect play a central role in the shaping of the self).

Four of these five critical influencing factors reach their pinnacle with the university experience, during these formative years typically occurring between the ages of 17 and 23. More events happen in this concentrated time than perhaps any other period of one's life. The effects of enculturation are typically first scrutinized after leaving home; the higher education experience is undoubtedly a critical life stage (a true transition to adulthood); and any university campus is chock full of opinion influencers who shape one's perspective. As such, universities have a unique and disproportional influence on the self-development process and thus an obligation to create a bond between the student and the university. When administrators and faculty recognize that their institutions are disproportionally shaping stakeholder experience, they have taken that first critical step toward influencing at a sacred level.

So where are sacred spaces and how do we define them?

There are five types of sacred spaces: ritual or ceremonial spaces, processional or exploring spaces, perspective-dominant spaces, refuge spaces, and cultural transition spaces.

Ritual spaces are those in which ritualistic ceremonies are held on a prescribed schedule and school culture is always on display, for example, a football stadium. Processional spaces are those discovered while exploring the connective tissue of the campus. Based on movement, they are associated with an inkling of the mysterious—what prospects await us on the other side of that hill?

Perspective-dominant spaces are those captivating spaces that provide long vistas and scenic environs, may include terraces and generous meadows and are often elevated. Refuge or personal sacred spaces are those locations that become consistent with individual rituals and issues of self-importance rather than concerns of social importance. These spaces are often small in dimension, highly influenced by elements of light and darkness, and are the most difficult type of sacred space to create. Cultural transition spaces are often associated with peril. These are spaces, often associated with height, deep waters or hard-to-navigate topography, in which transformation can occur—locations in which patrons move beyond the intellectual to basic survival. These are often the places in which fraternal rituals and the activities of secret societies take place.

All universities are in transition; it is simply the nature of education. Universities must compete, as all open systems do, for excellent students, outstanding departments, and great personnel, but as important as the competition for excellence is the competition for dollars that are given by alumni—for dollars are the fuel of change. The recent downturn in the economy will make it even more difficult for universities to feed the growth index they have been on over the last 20 years, making the goal of tapping into a wider field of donors critical.

Atop at any list of colleges and universities ranked according to annual fundraising, one is sure to see some familiar names: Stanford, Yale, Harvard and Columbia, etc. Moreover, the difference between donor funding at university environments and commuter colleges is staggering. The 20th highest fundraising university or college in 2007 was the University of California, San Francisco, which raised nearly $252,000,000. By comparison, Salt Lake Community College raised more funds than all other community colleges with private funding in 2007 by garnering more than $26,000,000, yet that figure barely comprises one-tenth of what UCSF raked in. Moreover, the next-highest community college on the list was almost $10 million behind at $17.29 million. The fundraising discrepancy between the commuter college and the university is extraordinary, but why?

Premier institutions understand the importance of branding in creating long-lasting loyalty among students. In fact, there are very specific and oft-employed images that are used for such branding efforts. You see them for every top-tier football program during games on Saturdays in the fall. You know, those 30-second promotional ads for universities featuring campus imagery. After seeing many of those promotional spots, I realized that the imagery in such ads typically has very little to do with dormitories, classrooms, libraries, or students working late into the night. I noticed approximately 70 percent of all images were focused on the campus as a landscape, views to special buildings, students walking or lounging on an open green and, of course, football players or bands on the stadium's holy ground.

Robert Ulrich examined visual landscapes and the psychological wellbeing associated with them and noted that we are biologically predisposed to liking scenes with prominent natural elements; that the bucolic scenes of greenery lessen the stress of education. Yet those opportunities are desperately lacking at the commuter college—one reason that students who stay in residence halls are 60 percent more likely to be future donors.

In the discipline of philosophy, which has an obvious and profoundly deep connection to higher education, philosophy is defined as the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Whether it is known by them or not, every student on campus is in pursuit of developing a personal approach to his own pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Be it alone or in concert with architecture, it is nature's influence that creates the most powerful context for this process to work its magic where things become spiritual—where “the soul meets the bone.” Ontology, a subset of philosophy, is the art of becoming. The act of becoming, re-creation, is coming from viewing to being, and this is influenced totally by the connection between our discovery of this pursuit and the physical environs in which they take place.

It is the university as a place, and not a collection of buildings, that creates memories for students.

Universities and colleges are all focused on the progression from learning to knowledge and from knowledge to wisdom, and recognize that academic institutions provide a true learning environment, which includes both instruction and meta-learning. Meta-learning is learning that happens without instruction. A physical space can create the most receptive circumstances for this type of learning to take place. Unlike instruction, meta-learning touches more than just the cerebral. It combines the head, the heart, and the gut. Accordingly, it catalyzes the progression from learning to true knowledge, and when we put these two pieces together—instruction and meta-learning—transcendence begins.

For example, think about reading Thoreau in a sacred space as opposed to at one's desk in a dorm room. Imagine ad hoc outdoor classrooms designed into the spaces around an English department. This creates the opportunity for students to appreciate wisdom—not manifest it themselves but feel its presence. Students will not forget this feeling when they return to campus years and decades later and recognize the transference of knowledge to wisdom within themselves.

Universities from the 12th century through the 17th century prepared students for higher forms of Ascension, but then man became the focus for education's sake through Enlightenment. A pivotal event was the University of Virginia becoming the first school in the United States to provide education in applied sciences and engineering. It also served as the canvas to Thomas Jefferson's preeminent campus design, which would become a prototype as a result of its classical architecture, geometrical structure, Southern influence, grid layout, and use of lawns as an organic, central organizing element for social gathering.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York's Central Park, would carry Jefferson's torch, utilizing green space and central lawns as organizing elements in university design. Olmsted designed such prominent institutions as Yale, Cornell and Stanford—all of which consistently rate among the top universities in annual fundraising, which is not merely coincidence. Alumni of these institutions and other campuses defined by sacred spaces return to a wealth of traditions and reconnect with their alma mater—which is integral to giving back to their respective schools. Commuter colleges simply do not produce within their students an emotional attachment that catalyzes a lifelong dedication and, as a result, miss out on grand opportunities associated with having a robust, dedicated and committed alumni base, which is critical in this competitive day and age.

So how do we create sacred spaces? In fact, they already exist all over campus but they must be recognized, maintained and supported. Think of them as large, mature trees where stories have been told for decades. Moreover, not only can existing sacred spaces be made more influential—entirely new ones can be created.

First, university officials must identify these spaces on their campus because they have great power and importance to stakeholders. Place character is often recalled with affection, and a strong sense of place supports our sense of personal identity. For that reason, familiar features are often fiercely defended. A memory survey technique is an excellent way for students visualize important places on campus. Do they feel at home, is there a sense of place, and are they transformed? In-depth surveys of existing students and alumni, interviews and mapping can help define existing on-campus sacred spaces.

This work should be done with the facilities and donor wings of the university to identify, analyze, conserve, support, and ensure future protection. Once these places have been identified it is essential to reinforce their function and develop their storylines. What is the history of the site? What meaning does it have? Support that story with elements such as seating, plantings, signage, art, paving, and other elements that support but do not destroy the place's uniqueness. This offers a great opportunity for donor programs—creativity in this exercise is highly valuable. Storytelling becomes the cultural support system and should be treasured and nurtured by all parties. It is also important to name these places as they should become part of the university lexicon: the quadrangle, the key, the rose garden, etc.

Opportunities also exist to create new sacred spaces—beyond those that currently exist—by identifying the weak fabric in your campus. Analyze the campus by looking for the opportunity to create the five aforementioned sacred spaces. Wander the campus, look for opportunities where students approach the university; entries are special portals into the mystery of enlightenment. Even though the pedestrian may not use the entry, it is the message of memory. It tells you this place is about students. One can even created sacred spaces off campus, most likely in the larger community the school exists in, which creates a deeper bond between the university and the community. Think of the campus as a Thought Village, the city as a support system.

Sacred spaces have great power. In a society with many of our institutions in flux, universities have the opportunity and duty to fill the roles of creating meaningful and sacred spaces, as they become the stable institutions of our society. Only by transforming our campuses into Thought Villages will education provide us a true opportunity to transform the student. And only on a campus can one enliven all the senses to touch and be touched by the stories, people and spaces—and that makes sacred spaces all the more important as we go forward.

The United States still leads in higher education, which will keep our students returning decade after decade. This is an opportunity, and a grand one, to connect campus buildings to both existent sacred spaces and new ones by using this concept as the cornerstone of a capital fundraising drive.

And in our current economic predicament, this is vitally important.

Earl Broussard, ASLA, AICP, LEED-AP, is president and co-founder of the landscape architecture and planning firm, TBG Partners.