Alain de Botton’s religious cherry picking, as shown at Secular Retreat and other new religious buildings, exemplifies our changing attitudes to faith and atheism
The Secular Retreat, designed by RIBA Royal Gold Medal winner Peter Zumthor, was unveiled in October last year to near universal acclaim in the architectural press. The five bedroom, single storey house in Devon was the final addition to Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture project: a series of bespoke houses available on short-term let, that emerged from his philosophical treatises on happiness and religion and have earned him an honorary RIBA Fellowship.
The question that immediately arose for me was why the name ‘retreat’ was accompanied by the prefix ‘secular’. Why not a ‘country retreat’ or, better still a ‘holiday retreat’ – which is what it actually is? The simple answer, of course, is that it’s a concrete (or in this case, rammed concrete) articulation of de Botton’s ‘religion for atheists’ which can be broadly summarised as the right to enjoy the beauty of religion without having to believe in the assaults on reason that go with it. In short, it’s an inverse articulation of Cliff Richard’s ’why should the Devil have all the good music?’ query. This isn’t the first time de Botton has explored the possibility of co-opting religious typologies and practices for the secular community – in 2012 he pitched a ‘Temple for Atheists’ which he hoped to build in the City of London. What interests me is whether de Botton’s projects are ironic or whether, in attempting to capture the ineffable in his architecture, he just wants to have his cake and eat it.
Being the only built example of ‘religion for atheists’, the Secular Retreat sheds some light on this question. Let me begin by asking: what exactly is this building? Beyond riffing on a monastic theme, it has very little in common with historical religious retreats. The original retreats in the Roman Catholic tradition were the brain-child of the Counter-Reformation mystic and founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola, who developed the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ – a gruelling six-hour a day, hallucination-inducing, prayer workout – as a way of breaking down intellect and creating a direct communication with God. No-one came away from a Spiritual Exercises retreat feeling refreshed but they may well have felt they’d had a (probably scary) close encounter with the deity.
Or was de Botton’s thinking more in line with Buddhist retreats? But here again, the roots of the Buddhist retreat lie in the three month monastic Vassa which, in the Theravada tradition, takes place during the monsoon season. Again, the retreat was designed for nuns and monks, famed for their punishing austerity and mind-altering stretches of meditation. It’s difficult to see what de Botton’s holiday home, complete with Zumthor designed lighting and furnishing, has in common with Vassa.
Perhaps what he really had in mind, though, was something like the modern, generic retreats offered by a wide variety of secular and religious organisations. These typically offer a programme of mindfulness, self-examination and improvement, yoga and virtuous meals. Here the architecture of the Secular Retreat meets its closest kin in the Vajrasana Retreat Centre in Suffolk, designed by Walters and Cohen for the London Buddhist Centre. This and the Secular Retreat share an emphasis on minimalism, clean lines and environmentally friendly materials and technology. Both offer a quiet, inoffensive architecture that doesn’t bossily interrupt meditation with didactic wall-paintings and devotional trinkets. And yet both aspire to somehow capture spiritual beauty – a virtue that endlessly fascinates de Botton.
The common ground shared between the Vajrasana Retreat Centre and the Secular Retreat reveals a lot about our evolving relationship with religion in the West. Here are two buildings, commissioned by seemingly contrasting patrons, which articulate one objective: to reject monotheism, traditional worship and ritual. De Botton would like to hold on to all of the elements of religion that comfort and inspire him without having to actually believe it. Meanwhile the London Buddhists would like to preserve the spiritual element of religion, without all the noisy accoutrements and ritual of ethnic Buddhism, which compete with self reflection. In both cases, these are buildings which suggest that a lot of people who don’t like organised religion are having problems letting go of it.
Beyond this, it would be difficult for those people who, like me, work on contemporary religious architecture, not to have noticed that a new cross-faith architectural language seems to be emerging. Here the symbolism which used to immediately distinguish a church from, say, a synagogue or a mosque is collapsing into one culturally anonymous and spiritually equivocal style. Waugh Thistleton’s recently completed, award-winning Jewish Prayer Halls in Bushey Cemetery, for example, are simple, thoughtfully designed buildings which are intended to generate private contemplation but are silent about the specific faith to which they belong. Here, as with the Secular Retreat and the Vajrasana Retreat Centre, the emphasis on personal reflection would seem to be the determining factor in the design.
It isn’t just contemporary purpose-built architecture that expresses the increasingly blurred boundaries between the sacred and secular. This social and theological trend is perfectly illustrated by my local (former) church – an unremarkable, neo-gothic Victorian building in Brighton which was formerly St Augustine’s Anglican church and is now St Augustine’s Events Centre For Arts, Spirituality and Wellbeing. The building, which remains broadly the same on the outside, underwent significant internal refurbishment and now comprises ‘Space’ (a yoga studio); ‘Rough Diamond’ (an arts cafe and event space); offices for local businesses and consultation rooms for holistic therapies. The ‘altar area’ (former chancel) is now, according to the website, both a ‘space for spiritual enlightenment’ and also ‘an exciting space for powerful business presentations’.
None of this is meant to diminish new faith buildings. The St Augustine’s Events Centre thrives as a community hub in ways which are absolutely consonant with the building’s original purpose. It brings local people together by offering facilities that chime with the choices and needs of people in 21st century Brighton. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s still a religious space, hosting occasional worship by Pentecostal, Buddhist and Hare Krishna groups. The Prayer Halls at Bushey are beautiful, thoughtful and inspiring buildings which fill me with wonder at my place in the universe. The Vajrasana Centre is an intelligent example of collaborative design, where the community and architects have worked together to find ways of articulating philosophy and spirituality. All this is what architecture should be doing. It’s what great religious architecture has always done.
We are living in an age in which truth, as a concept, is under daily attack; all the systems and institutions that held society in place seem to be unravelling as we cast about looking for anything at all that we can still believe in. Now that our advance towards progress and enlightenment seems uncertain, even the most intractable atheists appear to be back-pedalling; when the high priest of atheism, Richard Dawkins, comes out in support of religious education for children on the basis of its cultural value, it’s clear the terrain is shifting. It would seem that religion still has something to offer – after all, in dark times an appreciation of the sublime feels a bit like a flicker of hope.
I would like to share this final thought with Alain de Botton: the Secular Retreat looks like a marvellous, perhaps even (as the Guardian’s architecture critic Rowan Moore suggests) ‘miraculous’ piece of architecture. If it’s explicitly for atheists, I’m fine with that despite the fact that I’m not one.
On 20-21 June the University of Westminster in partnership with the RIBA will host the conference Spiritual, Sacred, Secular: The Architecture of Faith in Modern Britain which will explore these questions