Faith in Fiorland: An architectural prospection on spirituality and tourism

Abdallah Alayan

Hero Abdallah Alayan

In an increasingly secular society, the spirit is demoted as an architectural priority. If the presence of religion in the Western world is diminishing, what remains of the capacity for architecture to accommodate spiritual experiences?

This thesis aims to speculate on a potential future for the spiritual architectural typology in a society of growing agnosticism and secularism. While this is a worldwide trend, this thesis specifically addresses the deficit of inspiring architecture to engage the spirit within New Zealand. This deficit provides a significant challenge, the breadth of which is condensed through the specification of Fiordland as the site for such heavy subject matter. 

Almost one million tourists each year take the spectacular journey from Lake Te Anau towards Milford Sound through the magnificent Fiordland. It is this path which accommodates a selection of four sites for the outcome of this research, the designs for which aim to conjure specific spiritual experiences.

These designs fill the void of the typology within the nation and compensate for an observed inadequacy within the existing architecture of Fiordland. Accessible on foot from various nodes along the highway, the architectural series is also accompanied by the proposal of a new track which connects all four interventions and ushers explorers from Te Anau towards the Milford and Routeburn tracks, generating a natural, architectural and spiritual pilgrimage.

Journey Map Abdallah Alayan
Journey map

Historically, religion has been the most effective galvaniser of the spirit. By interpolating aspects of religious practice and seeking consensus between the religious and non-religious spiritual condition, this project aims to investigate the existing overlap between what is natural, architectural, touristic and spiritual, proposing an architecture which harmonises these seemingly miscellaneous elements. 

Holistically, the project’s primary interest is in the role architecture can play in unlocking the spiritual potential within journeying and exploration, which are inherent to the Fiordland region. Spiritual architecture often centres around prayer, overlooking alternative experiences as possible inspirations for spatial compositions. Upon investigation into potential springboards for design, particularly inspecting religious rituals to extract elements relatable to non-religious demographics, four clear programmatic motivations emerged: instrumentation, ablution, congregation and contemplation. In this order, each of the concepts forms the basis for four interventions which culminate as a holistic series. 

The first is the Melodic Spire; a melodramatic instrument shrouded within an architectural experience of natural and introduced sounds. Followed by the Cleansing Circuit, the Congregation Chamber and the Contemplative Booth; the four interventions experiment with variation in scale, materiality and composition to embody the diversity of the human spiritual condition.



Cleansing Circuit Cross Section Abdallah Alayan
Cleansing Circuit cross-section

Upon defining the programmatic and conceptual essence of the interventions, the influence of phenomenological principles encouraged the development of tectonic strategies, functional systems and nuanced spatial considerations. 

Considerations of the visual and sensory effects of materiality and space define the experience of each of the four spaces. Designing for sensations beyond what the eye can see pursues an equity between senses in the architectural gestures being made. 

The Melodic Spire predominantly balances sight with sound, the Contemplative Booth with scent, and the Circuit and Chamber with touch. Overlaps between sensory stimulations are intended within all four. If secular sacred spaces can be defined by promoting a sense of existentialism, and experiences of sacredness and spirituality are intrinsically intertwined, the spiritually engaging qualities of the four interventions become ingrained in their phenomenological essence. 

An enigmatic aura contributes heavily to the experience of all four interventions and their many layers of discovery, further connecting them with the attributes of spatial numinosity. 

Congregation Chamber Exploded Axonometric Abdallah Alayan
Congregation Chamber Exploded Axonmetric
Melodic Spire Cross Section Abdallah Alayan
Melodic Spire cross-section
Contemplative Booth Exploded Axonometric Abdallah Alayan
Contemplative Booth Exploded Axonmetric

Finished Product

Contemplative Booth Interior Abdallah Alayan
Contemplative Booth - interior

By extracting and spatially abstracting common practices from a variety of faiths, the inclusivity of all four interventions articulates a sense of unity between the religious and non-religious through a shared connection to the spiritual weight of nature. 

The architecture does not attempt to replace the spiritual qualities of nature; rather, it aims to complement, prompting explorers to embrace an enhanced sense of place and purpose as they rest and rejuvenate along their Fiordland experience. The programs that the interventions accommodate speak to the spiritual and the habitual; the religious and non-religious. They aim to provide precious moments of poetry in simple human acts, collective and individual. They do so as independent interventions. However, they also aim to contribute memorable spiritual moments to the holistic journey from Te Anau to Milford Sound, elevating the conglomerated experience from voyage to pilgrimage.

The outcomes of this thesis cement the ability of architecture to create poetry with meaningful social and spiritual impact. Indeed, the role of architecture in engaging the spirit is not dependent on denominationalism for success. Rather, it is the architect who is responsible and capable of injecting poetry into any given space. The four interventions are an embodiment of the prospects where the spirit is an entity not usurped as a means for division, but one which emerges into the conscience of the architectural process and reinforces solidarity within the human condition. 


Critic's Text

Heading to Milford Sound from their family home in Christchurch early in 2019, Abdallah and his sister were tapping into a strong national inclination: to get out to our shores and mountains. The asphalt, he noted, takes you near places of profound beauty. Still, there appeared to be no opportunities to 'inhabit' that landscape, a landscape which he interpreted to be as close to sacred as he could imagine, in a manner which befitted the phenomenal experience it is. He found only very ordinary buildings in the most extraordinary landscapes. 

Abdallah's research focused on what tactile and atmospheric opportunities might be contrived for such places, for those who might leave their vehicles for an hour or two and seek out one, some, or all of a sequence of sites where they might 'stage' the landscape. More specifically, Abdallah's intention was, in a land where few adhere to religious communities, and where one might imagine specific experiences which might permit, even trigger, for those not usually inclined, a reflective or even spiritual, experience. 

Extrapolating from his own religious, cultural practice, Abdallah cross-referenced the five senses to make places where, for example, sound or touch or visual experiences are framed elementally yet powerfully. The physical-psychological events would be a lakeside carillon of bronze chimes, a forest ablution sauna or a stair composed of individual stone prayer slabs and timber-slatted meditation tower. The quality and coverage of Abdallah's media (maps, site plans, drawings, renders, detail sheets and models at various scales) are genuinely prodigious. They speak about the author's approach to the thesis as an opportunity to demonstrate the creative value in detailed communication which, in this case, is fine-tuned architectural specification.

— Michael Milojevic - supervisor