Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Sacred Space and Special Events

Back in March I discussed the concept of ritual and how it related to special events. Noted scholar Catherine Bell whom I referred to places a lot of importance on symbolism and tells us that places and locations are in themselves sacred symbols. In this post, I want to put forward the theory that in special events we are actually working in our own form of sacred spaces and that how we treat those spaces is not a lot different from other sacred spaces such as churches. Our inherent human propensity to treat such sacred spaces with a certain reverence, either religious or otherwise, will always be with us. Let's look at some background theory.

Religious scholar Mircea Eliade was the first to propose that, for what he called religious people, the world is divided into two kinds of space, the sacred and the profane. Profane space is the ordinary space in which we live and go about our daily activities free of all reference to a larger reality. Sacred space is experienced differently. When one enters a sacred space, he or she acts in accordance with the environment (e.g. in a church or temple one might bow or remove a hat or speak in whispers). Eliade claimed that before modern times, “archaic people” established towns, built sanctuaries, and organized space and time with reference to the sacred.[i] [ii] In those ancient times, the choice of location for a sacred space might have been simply due to a fortuitous sign (e.g. hilltops because they were closer to the gods) or it might have been planned as a result of some specific ritual. Today, as Bell points out, thinking is more along the lines that a specific space or location is made sacred by the ritual-like activities that take place within it. Thus, like other symbols, they are differentiated from profane spaces “by means of distinctive acts and responses and the way they evoke experiences of a greater, higher, or more universalized reality - the group, the nation, humankind, the power of God, or the balance of the cosmos.”[iii]

Today, sacred space may be a church, but it also may be a historic site, a natural geographic site (e.g. Niagara Falls or even a cave), or a built environment such as a stadium, city streets, or a conference center. For example, throughout history, numerous sites have hosted special events (mega-events), from the ceremonial plazas and temples of Mesoamerica and Egypt to the Nazi parade grounds of Nuremberg and the stadia of the modern Olympics. As Ellie Carter and architect Thomas Barrie note, “the physical journey made by the individual symbolically represents their mental journey through the act of the ceremony” ------ “Barrie goes on to identify a basic three-part structure to ritual spaces: a marked origin, a path, and a sacred center (or destination) at the end of the path.”[iv] [v] Certainly this is true for the participants in a spectacle. Unfortunately, these analyses do not take into account the fact of the three different key players in celebration and their respective roles in a spectacle. They all need apportioned space of their own within the overall ritual or sacred space of a temple or larger geographic or architectural location. In my personal experience of producing events and of visiting the sites of historical spectacles, I have noticed that all these sacred spaces have common characteristics. These include:

· Well-defined physical boundaries. These can be actual walls, fences, landscape and natural features such as trees or waterways, buildings on the sides of streets or plazas, or humans who have been purposely placed in a guardian-type position.
· One or more formal entrances and exits. Virtually all sacred spaces have at least one main entrance (i.e. the “origin” identified by Barrie) and often the same entrance is used as an exit. This is usually obvious through physical features (e.g. size, color, design) or strategic positioning along a boundary of the space.
· A purposeful orientation. This is usually obvious with ancient sites, especially religious ones, as explained by Eliade. They were often oriented according to compass directions, the path of the sun, astronomical alignments or, as some have speculated, along lines of magnetic energy (e.g. Ley Lines), although this latter is mostly considered to be doubtful science. Today’s orientations are more concerned with accessibility and the presentation of a building’s strongest architectural features.
· Allowance for a processional route. Almost all ancient spectacles incorporated a procession as a ritual component of the event (i.e. the “path” identified by Barrie). For some, the procession was the spectacle. Even today, processions form part of many spectacles and smaller events (e.g. wedding ceremonies, Olympic parade of athletes, football “bowl” games, lantern festivals, Mardi Gras and Carnivals all over the world, etc). Permanent indoor event spaces intentionally build for these events (e.g. wide church aisles), outdoor spectacles use closed off city streets or parks, and temporary indoor spaces design specific routes (e.g. wide entranceways for corporate meetings and conferences).
· A purposefully designed ceremonial space. Most sacred spaces contain smaller but more significant inner sanctums or spaces in which the essential core ritual activities take place (i.e. the “destination” identified by Barrie). The most obvious of course is the altar in a church. Other examples include the classic Egyptian temple layout that incorporated an inner sanctuary only accessible to the chief priests and pharaohs, certain levels on specific Mayan pyramids or other buildings within any given city, the reviewing stand on a parade route, a stage at a concert or large entertainment event in modern times (a stage at a corporate or sales meeting would also qualify), or the playing surface in a modern sports event. Essentially, whether the event is religious or secular, this space is almost always present. The ceremonial space may be at the same level as the remainder of the sacred space, it may be lower (e.g. sporting events), or as in most cases, it may be higher (e.g. pyramids, altars, stages), denoting the important stature of those who use it.
· Performance space. This refers to the provision of space set aside for performances other than by the key ritual participants such as priests, kings, or spectators. In other words, it is space for dancers, musicians, theatrical shows with actors, comedians, and such. For example, in churches performance space is often designed into the architecture to accommodate an organ, choir, or musical group, and nowadays, even full theatrical productions. In other sacred spaces such as conference centers that have been set up for meetings or ceremonies, special staging is often utilized that is set apart from a main stage used for the meeting and key speeches, or the performance space may be purposely set up in and amongst spectators. In the case of a large outdoor procession, this performance space shares its location with the ceremonial space (e.g. the street or processional route), as it sometimes does in the case of a stage.
· Spectator space. All spectacles incorporate a spectator area since they are the key players for whom the event’s message is intended. In ancient societies, this might have been the outer courtyard in Egyptian temples, a central plaza in Mayan or Aztec cities, and city streets in China and Angkor as examples. In modern events, it may be specifically designed or temporarily placed audience seating in theaters, churches, stadia, or other indoor secular buildings, and large open areas for outdoor events. This latter might include everything from airport tarmacs or hangars (e.g. the Paris Air Show) to grassy fields (e.g. various festivals).
· Preparation area. Typically, most spectacles are so large and involve so many complex logistics that they require separate areas set aside for preparations by participants. Sometimes these areas are within the sacred space, sometimes they are not. For example, Roman triumphal processions prepared in the area known as the Campus Martius which was totally separated from the city core where the actual spectacle took place. However, preparations for the Egyptian Opet Festival in Thebes occurred mainly within the large temple complex of Karnak, itself the sacred space. Today’s modern events might use tents as preparation areas for performers or technical staff within an outdoor site or other rooms close to or part of a sacred space indoors (e.g. theater, conference room, arena).

Although most of the events in which I participated were not of sufficient size to be considered spectacles, they were nonetheless important forms of celebration for the key players. Therefore, to put in perspective the range of possibilities for sacred space in special events, these included large ferry boats, parks and gardens, farmers’ fields, hockey arenas, football stadia, conference centers, rodeo grounds, historic sites, gymnasia, hotel ballrooms, golf courses, churches, theaters, mountaintop ski chalets, movie studios, offices, army bases, casinos, stores and malls, restaurants, and many more too numerous to mention.

So the next time you start to plan for an event, consider that the space you are using is a sacred one and that by the very act of your planning, you are really just putting together a ritual for use in that space. No different from what our ancestors did thousands of years ago.

[i] Greeley, A.M. (1995). Sociology and Religion: A Collection of Readings. New York: Harper Collins College Publishers. pp. 94-105.
[ii] Jones, C.B. (2007). Introduction to the Study of Religion, Part 2 of 2. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company. pp. 112-126.
[iii] Bell, C. (1997). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 138-169.
[iv] Carter, E. (2003). Landscapes for Celebration: An Investigation and Design of Wedding Gardens. Unpublished Master’s thesis. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
[v] Barrie, T. (1996). Spiritual Path, Sacred Place: Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.