Creating Sanctuary

By Anthony Lawlor

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

Oh, a storm is threat’ning

My very life today

If I don’t get some shelter

Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

~ The Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter

Sanctuary is hard to find these days. Even home, that timeless refuge from the world’s travails and upheavals, offers little escape from the social unrest that’s raging around the globe. FOMO, Fear of Missing Out, has become FOGO, Fear of Getting Out.  Now more than ever we need a safe harbor, a haven that can soothe and calm us, and be a bulwark against the problems of the outside world.  But how do we create this?   As an architect, I see home as refuge that we’re constantly revising—as each stage of human history calls for new forms of protection and security.

At its core, home offers sanctuary from external threats such as weather, disease and social violence. On the other hand, a sanctuary should also give us the freedom to be ourselves — to express our unique character and values.

Sanctuary from is achieved through the location of home, where it stands in relation to potentially destructive and invasive forces. Today we have to consider the siting of a house, whether it will withstand the impact of earthquakes, floods, hail, hurricane force winds, wildfires.   In urban areas, crime,  gentrification and neglect determine where and how we live.   A home’s filtering ability is a key factor in its sanctuary power.

That filter may range from a seawall or a soundproof barrier, to better windows. And it may also include ways we screen out noise, including the information we receive from television and social media. 

Sanctuary to is provided by a home’s capacity to receive the totality of your personality and your existential sense of being. Home is the nurturing place that accepts your strengths and weaknesses, your brilliance and your shadows, your hopes and fears, your love and anger—the full range of your humanity.

Your dwelling should serve as a catalyst for expressing the multiple dimensions of your life in satisfying ways. Consider this:

  • Does the kitchen entice you to be creative and come up with  tasty and nourishing meals?  What can you do to make that room inspire you more?
  • Do you have a gathering area to share your music, watch your favorite movies, or your passion for art?
  • Is your bedroom a womblike place that helps you calm down at the end of the day, be more mindful of your needs and then drift into a full and peaceful sleep?

Asking every room how it can serve you—and mindfully honoring the pleasure it provides—will help you create the deepest sense of home.  A place that supports the full spectrum of body, mind and soul.

The Zoom Room and Other Changes

The most disorienting thing of late? The fact that home now has to serve so many purposes.  With more of us working on Zoom, spending hours on the home computer,  and homeschooling the kids, rooms must serve many functions.

When a kitchen must also serve as a home office a unique alchemy is generated. The kitchen/office of a psychotherapist who conducts online telehealth sessions prompts a consideration of how this room is providing nourishment –not just to the therapist’s family but to his clients, when they share this space online.

Shelves of ceramics bowls can serve as a soothing Zoom backdrop.

Ceramic bowls with aesthetic appeal might offer a sense of being received as well as serving practical kitchen functions at other times.  As TV journalists and Late Night entertainers work from their homes, we see their artwork and catch telling glimpses of the books they read in their off hours. We also meet them without their professional hair and makeup and occasionally, in background, there’s an attentive spouse or a barking dog. We can now use these Zoom Rooms to express our personalities.

As some form of social distancing continues, your living room may have to double as a yoga studio.  You might need to rearrange the room so you have instant and easy access to more floor space.

Children love to create forts and hiding places behind the sofa and can construct their own sanctuaries with a makeshift blanket.  Respect these mini-dwellings—and do your best to leave them intact, for their own need for sanctuary must be accommodated.

Staying at home with spouses, partners and family, we share overlapping spaces with them. The shared sounds from video phone conversations, music, movies and other media that results can become an annoyance. To combat this, earphones are obvious essentials. It is also important to establish spaces that can be closed off by doors that can be outfitted with sound dampening materials.

Finally, we’re all looking for new ways to let the outdoors in. For some, it might be a matter of putting up a plywood shelf in front of a window to serve as a reading nook.

Quick and easy window seat, photo by Kinga Chichiwiecz on Unsplash

Home as a Soulful Place

Our concept of home is changing rapidly.  What was considered normal has been swept from beneath our feet.  But you’ll be okay if you can just remember that we’ve been adapting and adjusting our concept of shelter for thousands of years — even since the first humans tossed some branches down for a bed and dug a hole to make a cache for food.

Today our concern is to balance activity with a place for privacy and introspection.

One of my favorite designs for one of these internal “stopping places” is a window seat built into the landing of a staircase. Climbing or descending to such a seat makes it special — a private sanctuary that’s not connected to the home’s many activities. Here one can take in the view, notice the weather, or get lost in the pages of a book.  While most landings are not deep enough to accommodate a seat, you can place one between two book cases, two dressers or by a window.  Then you will have a similar alcove, a place for pausing, taking a breath and centering yourself.

Niches, shelves, small tables or altars can give you an instant sense of peace and serve as mindfulness “bells.” They can also remind you to take a moment to slow down and renew yourself. 

These small havens are vital in welcoming the full range of your emotions—and they will give you solace when the demands of work, or feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, sadness become hard to bear.

We also need a safe place to meditate and work through  these uncomfortable emotions.  Not much space is needed to create an at-home altar—whether it’s centered around a buddha or a family photo or some treasured object — where the heart can settle and we can unknot our conflicting energies and desires.

 “We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable,” says Lao Tzu. Sanctuary is an experience of your home’s internal spaces more than of its walls, floors and ceilings that define it.

A Comforting Room

Photo by Mael Balland on Unsplash

Sanctuary spaces allow you to honor the stillness of your being. The bathroom becomes not just the room where you shower, shave and dry your hair, but a ritual place to slow down and appreciate the act of cleansing and caring for your physical form. The bedroom serves as a sanctuary for resting the mind and body. A home office is a sanctuary for your creativity and for connecting with your colleagues over Zoom.

Rooms become havens when we view them as dimensions of our own imagination. So take some time and get intimate with your surroundings.  

Note how the space within the room is sculpted by its furnishings. An armchair with a curved back bends into the space around it. A rectangular dining table stakes out its place and purpose more forcefully.   Rearranging the furniture rearranges the space.

A sense of open space is the great treasure of our times. This can be gained by removing furniture and belongings that are not essential. Artfully arranging the furnishings that remain creates a more comforting space. Intelligent use of mirrors can make any room feel larger than its physical dimensions. Large paintings or photographs of landscapes can offer virtual windows within otherwise boxed-in places.

A home is also defined by its lighting. Our culture tends to seek more and more light. This misses the depth and richness that can be discovered in shadows. The process of creating places that receive the full spectrum of your interests and emotions is enhanced by employing illumination and shadows that reflect their moods. An armchair or day bed placed in a dark corner offers a refuge from the sensory and mental overload that assaults us throughout the day. Such varied qualities of radiance and shadow are achieved through the mindful placement of light fixtures and lamps. It’s important to note that lighting is effective when it is focused on walls, ceilings and floors that become luminous surfaces as they spread and soften the light. In this way, harsh glare is avoided.

Attuning ourselves to the dynamics of space opens invisible, but tangible, dimensions of sanctuary. Space speaks to silent, transcendent levels of our being.  And spending time at home can be the most intimate and liberating of human experiences.

A Dialogue with Home

Sanctuary is a continuous process of learning how we  inhabit space.  I encourage you to start an ongoing dialogue with home. Listen to the silent signals you are getting from your dwelling space. A south facing window in your house or apartment may be the perfect place for a seating area that will allow you to partake of that solar warmth. An alcove off a hallway might host photographs and objects that deepen your connection to family and friends or remind you of inspiring places you have visited.  

What to do for family celebrations, now reduced in size? With a branch, you might make a photo tree of favorite moments, then hang it from the ceiling in your dining room.

Photo by Devon Divine on Unsplash

How do you create a sanctuary that helps everybody flourish?  You can address this question for each area of the house  — consider how the dining area supports your family’s need for extraversion, while an area set aside for books and reading tends to their need for solitude.  The character of a home must provide for both. 

 Sanctuary lies in the overlap of form and function. It is where the chair seat meets the sitter, the bath tub holds the bather and the desk supports the writer.  It’s about our awareness of being nurtured and supported as we move throughout the day.

For your home to be a true sanctuary, you must make it as personal as possible. While the latest design trends may be visually stunning, don’t adopt them wholesale.  Make sure each reflects your own character and values.  What matters is not the particular style you choose or the amount of money you spend.  It’s making home an ally.  A place that  brings forth who you genuinely are and what you long to be.

Anthony Lawlor is an award-winning architect and author of The Temple in the House and A Home for the Soul. His work has been featured on National Public Radio, The Oprah Winfrey Show and numerous other media outlets. He is currently exploring the possibilities of sanctuary at his cottage in northern California.


Recommended Reading

The Temple in the House: Finding the Sacred in Everyday Architecture by Anthony Lawlor

A Home for the Soul: A Guide to  Dwelling with Spirit and Imagination by Anthony Lawlor

The House as a Mirror of Self by Claire Cooper Marcus

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