10. The Numinous in Theologies of Modern Architecture

The Holy in a Pluralistic World - Rudolf Otto's Legacy in the 21st Century - Ulrich Rosenhagen

Karla Britton [+-]
Diné College
Karla Cavarra Britton is Professor of Art History, School of Arts, Humanities, and English, Diné College (Navajo Nation) in Tsaile, Arizona, where she directs a National Endowment for the Humanities grant addressing Navajo art and is researching art and architecture in Native America more broadly. After receiving her PhD at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, she co-directed Columbia’s New York/Paris Program. She taught at the Yale School of Architecture, addressing modern sacred architecture, resulting in Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture (Yale, 2011). In 2017 Britton was resident at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton. She recently co-edited Modern Architecture and the Lifeworld (Thames & Hudson, 2020).


Architecture occupied a particularly important position in Rudolf Otto’s analysis of the holy, as he recognized it as a major expression of the numinous. I argue that this idea lies behind much of the attention paid to the “ineffable” in modern and contemporary religious architecture. I track this influence, examining how Otto’s ideas are expanded in 20 and 21st century architecture—and theological reflection about that architecture—first examining Paul Tillich’s theology of architecture, then the ineffable in modernist architects Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, and finally in monuments to atrocities: Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero in New York City, with reference to the World Trade Center itself as sacred architecture. I close by a consideration of the sacred’s indeterminacy in the largely secular Western world, which offers both challenges and opportunities for architecture.

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Britton, Karla. 10. The Numinous in Theologies of Modern Architecture. The Holy in a Pluralistic World - Rudolf Otto's Legacy in the 21st Century. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. Jun 2022. ISBN 9781781794906. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=30393. Date accessed: 07 Dec 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.30393. Jun 2022

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