A Conversation with Anthony Lawlor, AIA


...people want to extend the search for sacredness to their homes and workplaces. They ask how buildings can be perceived and designed to reflect the transformations in consciousness they are experiencing. These people are looking beyond "This Old House" in the hope of finding a temple in the house.

--from the Introduction to The Temple in the House


Award-winning architect Anthony Lawlor introduces us to stunning ideas about the connection between the human psyche and architecture and design. He is the author of The Temple in the House: Finding the Sacred in Everyday Architecture.

The Monthly Aspectarian: Anthony, your take on architecture looks like really interesting work. Tell us how you came to it.

Anthony Lawlor: Well, Guy, it was the convergence of two streams in my life. One is my interest in architecture and my work as an architect, and the other is my practice of meditation and study of philosophy for more than 25 years. What I saw was that architecture is an essential part of human life. From the moment we're born to the moment we pass away, we're surrounded by architecture. Even if we go out into the wilderness, we usually take our tent to shelter us, and our Swiss Army knife or some other designed object. Because of this essential connection to human life, architecture, design, has essential connections to consciousness, Just like there are connections between mind and body, I feel that the next step of mind, body and architecture is a very profound understanding of human life.

TMA: There have been times in the past when we had much more of a connection to the sacred in life and it was understood that our architecture was a sacred art.

AL: Yes, in most cultures throughout most of history, life has been seen as a sacred endeavor, and the architecture that was created to shelter human life was seen as a sacred act, both in the creation of it and the structures themselves. You can see examples of this in every culture. One beautiful example is the Navajo hogan, which is a simple round structure with an opening in the top and a doorway facing to the east. This simple structure embodies their entire mythology and relationship to life -- just in the layout and use of the structure.

TMA: You mean it's not just a little circular tent stuck out there.

AL: Right. The east-facing door is oriented to the rising sun to reconnect the life of the house with the renewing powers of the sunrise every day. And they feel that separate rooms in a building divide up a family and cause dissention and disintegration of the family. Living in one room, they feel, creates harmony. The opening in the ceiling connects the powers of the sky and heaven with those of earth so that the interior of the hogan is always reconnected or inspired or enlivened by those energies of the cosmos.

TMA: What's another example?

AL: Temples in India are seen as microcosms of the whole universe. The ground plan of an Indian temple is based on a diagram called the vastupurusha mandala. Vastu means dwelling, purusha means soul, and mandala means diagram. These diagrams are divided up into squares, and each square is assigned a different deity or quality of creative intelligence. The temples that are built on these diagrams are seen as embodying all the different forces in nature, all the different deities in nature . . . and so a person going to one of these temples and entering it is in a process of engaging all the forces of nature.

TMA: A building like this can have an effect even if the person walking in doesn't know the principles involved?

AL: Yes, mainly because of the layout and the form of the architecture. Most temples such as this have a type of balanced layout, either a square or rectangle or circle. That balanced geometry creates a balanced state in the mind and body. If we go into a chaotic environment, we usually experience more chaos. If we go into an orderly environment, we experience more order. It's the simple geometry of these places that creates a settled state.

In the vertical dimension, the rising up toward the sky from a massive base that gets narrower and narrower toward the top until it disappears into a point -- if we look at a structure like that and our eye travels along that structure, our physiology, our mind and body, our consciousness, experiences that journey from the diversity of the earth to that unity of the sky. Just looking at a structure that's shaped like that, whether it's an Indian temple or a skyscraper in downtown Chicago, there's that same type of effect. So whether we know the philosophy behind the structure or what it's used for, there is still some influence on us.

TMA: And that happens on a subconscious level even if you don't understand it consciously.

AL: Exactly.

TMA: It's well known that structures such as Stonehenge and the pyramids in Egypt and Central America are calendrical; they're astronomically, even astrologically oriented. Does this relate to what you're talking about?

AL: Certainly, and many structures are set up this way. Many of the gothic cathedrals in Europe are aligned so that the center line down the cathedral lines up with the place on the horizon that the sun rises on on the day of the patron saint of that particular cathedral. With the light piercing those east-facing windows and going down the central aisle, cathedrals were seen as being re-enlivened or reborn or rekindled on that day when there was that alignment.

TMA: Sounds pretty pagan.

AL: Yes. All these labels we put on different things tend to obscure the underlying principles that are going on in our direct experience of these places and our relationship with our environment.

TMA: How does the Golden Mean relate to your work?

AL: Well, the Golden Mean is a proportional relationship that is found throughout nature. It's found in the human body, it's found in the growth of nautilus shells, butterflies, all kinds of natural structures. Even the structure of DNA is based on the Golden Mean or is generated out of the Golden Mean. When we walk into buildings that are based on the proportions of the Golden Mean, there's a harmony between the body of the building and our own physical bodies. And since there's a connection between mind and body, when our bodies are in environments that are harmonious and are resonating at these frequencies of the Golden Proportion -- which are also found in music -- then our consciousness feels that resonance as we walk into them. This has been known by architects throughout history.

In the Renaissance, they often proportioned rooms according to musical chords so that when you were walking into a building, you were really walking into, as they called it, a piece of frozen music. So there was a harmony with universal structures, and then also with human structures.

TMA: So they would design a room so that it would be more or less a C-chord or something?

AL: Yes, so that the width, the depth, and the height of the room would relate to the three notes of a chord. And then Andrea Palladio, who was one of the best-known Renaissance architects, designed the different rooms so that as you were moving through the rooms of a house, say, it would be like moving through the chords of a musical piece. In that way, the whole structure was harmonized . . . not on just a one-dimensional level of one chord, but like the progression of a musical piece.

One thing I think that's very basic in this is to realize that every building started as a stirring in consciousness, an impulse of movement in the soul . . . and that that impulse or movement in consciousness, that idea of creating a home or an office building or an automobile or any designed object, was then fed into matter.

In terms of a house, the idea of a house was fed into 2 by 4s, sheet rock, roof shingles, siding . . . and it organized those materials into the form of a house -- so the consciousness of the person who designed a building and created it is a substance that's within the building. In other words, in a chair, the idea of chair is mixed with wood and fabric into "chair." Now if you could somehow remove that idea of "chair" from chair, then those materials would just fall down in a heap and the chair wouldn't be there anymore. It would just be a pile of materials. So our consciousness is actually a substance in the environment.

Every object in our environment -- if you look around the city of Chicago, for instance, the roads, the cars, the buildings, everything, the plates, the clothes, all are based on this connection between our consciousness and the substance around us . . . so that our consciousness permeates the entire environment. Everywhere we look is consciousness, the human soul.

From the other perspective, every material, whether it's wood, stone or glass, has particular information in it. Stone has a particular hardness, a particular weight, et cetera. So really, we can look at all these materials as purely being information, too. When we look around at our environment, we're really seeing not isolated fixed objects but a field of information and intelligence interacting with the information and intelligence from our own consciousness, and the information and intelligence within the materials around us from nature.

TMA: How do you use this in designing a home for a client?

AL: Usually people say, How many rooms do you need? What size of rooms do you need? What style of architecture do you want? What we say is, What are the images in your consciousness, in your soul that are very important to you? What are the shapes of your consciousness? And then we shape the building, the rooms, around the shape of the consciousness of the person.

TMA: What if somebody says, Well, I like triangles.

AL: I would go deeper. I would ask them, Well, what is it about triangles that you like? And I would then maybe get some images or ask them to find images of particular triangles. Maybe it's the triangle with the eye at the top on the dollar bill . Or maybe it's a triangle that symbolizes fire . . . some mythic connections to these basic symbols and images. Then based on those deeper, mythological requirements, we would shape the house according to that story, rather than the story of "I want my kitchen here, and I want it to be this size," et cetera.

A good example of this is, we're doing a project now, and the husband of this couple kept bringing up an image about fire, the fireplace, how important it was to him. After awhile, his wife said, What is it about this fireplace that's so important to you? He stopped for a minute and closed his eyes. Then all of a sudden tears came to his eyes as he realized what it was. He said, "I haven't thought of this in 30 years, but I grew up in my grandparent's house and they always had a fire going in the fireplace." So for him, that core of home was the image of the fireplace. Based on that and some other things, we shaped the whole design of the house around the fireplace.

So we look for those inner things that are important, those inner qualities of consciousness, and then bring the environment to serve that. In my book, I have an exercise where I ask people to close their eyes and get in touch with that core feeling in their heart, the essence of who they are. And then I ask them to imagine a floor that would support that core feeling of who they are. What the qualities of that floor might be -- what materials would it be made out of, what shape would it be? What colors, textures, et cetera. And then I ask them to imagine the walls that would embrace that core feeling in their heart. And then on and on through the ceiling, the windows, doors, et cetera. And the whole point of this is that it's making the soul the referral point for design, not some style or what somebody else said we should have or anything like that. It's referring to the deepest aspects of who we are, and serving those deepest aspects.

TMA: So do you also remodel with this in mind?

AL: Oh yes, exactly.

TMA: What kinds of things do you end up doing in that case?

AL: Well, it's interesting. More recently, the first thing we've been doing is to ask people to really look at the place they live and try to find qualities of the soul that are there in that place. What qualities of light, the type of thing that they already appreciate, and then try to see what's missing. What could I add to make this place complete, to make it serve all levels of who I am: my mind, my body, my family, my relationships with others, et cetera. And also the relationship with nature. How can the cycles of the sun and the moon and the different seasons be brought into the whole process . . . and then shape the house in that way. So it's pretty much the same as starting from scratch, but it's also trying to get in tune with the consciousness or soul within the particular building.

TMA: You hear a lot about feng shui these days. How is it different from what you're doing?

AL: Well, feng shui is the art of placement. It's arranging a building or objects in a room so that individual or family life is harmonized with the processes of nature or with cosmic life. The idea with feng shui is that by arranging furniture in a particular way or arranging the rooms of a house in a particular way, it harmonizes with the cycles of nature. It attunes us to the processes of nature so that then we experience more harmony and happiness.

What my work focuses on is our direct experience in the environment, wherever we are. How can we find inspiration and renewal in the middle of downtown Chicago or in our home, and see the connections between our consciousness and the environment. And there are certain fundamental patterns of consciousness that we have that are expressed in architecture. Let's talk about simple ones that aren't too complicated. For instance, every floor is really a physical thing, but it's also a symbol of support and upliftment. Every wall can be seen as a symbol of loving embrace. Every ceiling or roof can be seen as a symbol of shelter. And every window or doorway is a symbol of communication. I'm finding that when I can see these connections, and other people can see them, that all of a sudden, the environment becomes more friendly. It becomes a relationship of "I and thou." The environment comes alive and is participating with us in our lives, rather than being something that is alien to us. The essence of what I'm talking about is really our interconnection with the environment in a direct, immediate way.

TMA: We know that there are places in nature where it's comforting to sit -- by a pool with a waterfall, and so forth. Why do these settings have this effect on us, and what are the urban counterparts?

AL: Well, the reason we enjoy sitting by a mountain stream or a lake is because we feel harmony with those environments. We can understand our relationship to them. We feel our connection to the whole. Now cities -- they're a product of collective consciousness. They're the expressions of the soul of a whole community or a whole group of people. In a city, places like parks, plazas have this harmonizing effect, but even a tall building, a skyscraper, can have this effect if we know how to look at it, if we know how to see it as a piece in an inter-connected web of life. A skyscraper, for instance, can become like an inspiring steeple if we can see it as an expression of the human spirit, rising from rootedness in the depths of earth and reconnecting with the expansive qualities of the sky. Every rising shape, whether it's the steeple of a church or a high-rise building has that effect. When we can learn to see the different pieces of architecture as part of this whole, then we can have an inspiring experience like we do out in nature when we feel that interconnectedness of all things.

The city is based on the interconnection of two roadways. If we think of a roadway as a path of movement of the soul, of an individual's life journey, and what a city really is -- a place of intersection, where roads cross and meet, and where the roads and paths of people intersect and community life is enriched . . . architecture expresses that intersection of roads. Everywhere we look around us we can see these relationships between the physical form that surrounds us and the spiritual forms that are within us.

TMA: What are you going to do at your workshop at Oasis, Tony?

AL: We're going to do two fundamental things: First, we're going to learn exercises and practices to see the sacred in every piece of the environment, in every building, piece of furniture, every place of the city. Then based on that understanding, we're going to go through how a person can transform the place they live to reflect the inner qualities of their soul, so that they can create a home that nurtures their soul and not just nurtures their style needs or anything like that. But really, as we were talking about before, that addresses the depth of who they are on the individual level, and also on the level of couples and families.

Anthony Lawlor, of the Lawlor/Weller Design Group in Los Angeles, is an award-winning architect who brings a spiritual point of view to his work. He is the author of The Temple in the House: Finding the Sacred in Everyday Architecture, a beautifully illustrated how-to book which has received rave reviews ($17.95, lavishly illustrated softcover, published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam).