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Architect Seeking Out the Sacred Symbolism in Secular Structures : Spirituality: Author Anthony Lawlor, who has written a book on finding the inspirational in everyday buildings, takes a tour of Downtown L.A. Along the way, he finds City Hall, freeway overpasses and office towers uplifting.

October 08, 1994|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a muggy fall morning in Downtown Los Angeles and the people streaming up the steps of City Hall seemed preoccupied with such mundane business as zoning variances, traffic regulation and building codes.

But Anthony Lawlor, who was driving south on Spring Street, was preoccupied with spirituality. "Notice how the basic rising form of City Hall is like a secular steeple," he said as the car turned onto Temple Street. "And at the top of the steps, the pillars and arches invite you in, to a spacious rotunda inscribed with zodiac signs. This is more than a city building. It can be very uplifting for people going to work there or just walking by."

Lawlor, an architect, was conducting a spiritual tour of Downtown Los Angeles, focusing not on churches, but on office buildings, pedestrian walkways and multilayered freeway interchanges.

These structures, he says, are more than just functional. They can be nurturing reminders of the spiritual essence of life, helping to point out an individual's connectedness to all things--mind to body, human beings to nature--connections that have been severely split in the 20th Century, he says. "People today feel fragmented and isolated."

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A cathedral or synagogue or mosque is designed specifically to restore a sense of the sacred, he says, and people go there seeking personal wholeness. But such design secrets can also be found in many secular buildings, if one learns to stop and look for them. "These buildings are speaking to us," said Lawlor as the Downtown drive continued. "The City Hall, with its unifying elements, reminds us that we can be interconnected."

He was in Los Angeles to promote his new book, "The Temple in the House: Finding the Sacred in Everyday Architecture." He calls it a guide to enriching our lives through architecture. "I think we can perceive the buildings around us in ways I call sacred."

"Behind the physical, material world," he writes, "there is some force that animates our bodies. That life force--whether we call it God, spirit or energy--that's what I call the sacred."

His illustrated book combines religion, mythology, philosophy and architecture, from ancient times to the present, to present its theme of healing through architecture. Lawlor maintains that people ignore architecture's potential to unify mind, body and health to their own detriment.

"From the moment we are born, to the moment we pass away, we are in some sort of building. Many people today feel numbed by modern life. If they can see these connecting threads, they can see their interconnected-ness with all things."

This is a theme Lawlor has long been contemplating.

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He grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from Hamilton High School and received his master of arts degree from UC Berkeley. "My family was culturally Jewish, but not religious," he says. "Perhaps that is why I've chosen this focus. As I began to travel around the world after college, I started to notice how buildings influenced me."

A pivotal experience was his first visit to Chartres Cathedral in France when he was 29.

"I knew it was a great piece of architecture, but what I learned is why it's an architectural treasure," he said. From his first glimpse of the spires rising out of the medieval city, to the cathedral entrance, past the carvings of saints to the soaring arches of the interior and the light-flooded rose window, he recalls, "Everything pointed to a spiritual experience, taking your spirit upward. Going up to that doorway, I felt almost a hum of consciousness: There had been years and years of worship there. It sounds metaphysical, but I felt the expansion of my inner awareness."

Since then, his thinking has been further shaped by such modern holistic architects as Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn ("He really saw the spirit in architecture") and Joseph Campbell's studies of the myth and symbols representing fundamental patterns of thinking. And most important, Lawlor said, "I've been practicing transcendental meditation for 23 years. It gave me direct experience of the depths of my own consciousness. So then I could make the connections between inner consciousness and outer form."

Sifting together all those influences, he began to look at the buildings around him in a different way. "Spiritual architecture is not solely the province of religious structures dedicated to particular rituals and occasions," he wrote. "It can be created where the physical surroundings are shaped to give our lives depth and meaning."

He devotes several chapters to illustrating how various thought patterns--what Campbell calls "mythic archetypes"--are revealed in specific architectural elements such as a steeple or a doorway.

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