Experiencing Space and Place: Washington National Cathedral at #NCA13

Upon arriving at Washington National Cathedral for an on site panel discussion, I was most excited to see the Space window. The stained glass window honors the Apollo 11 moon landing and bears a moon rock embedded in the design.

What I didn’t expect was to experience the cathedral through a variety of sensory approaches. The scholarly approach of the panel was unlike any other I’ve attended at NCA (the National Communication Association). We were asked to walk, stand, and sit in the cathedral and experience it alone before returning to discuss the building as a space and place.

As I walked and observed the cathedral, I was taken by two particular spaces in the place that communicate its role as a space and place.

The Children’s Chapel

The children’s chapel in nave of the cathedral is scaled to fit the body of a six-year old. The chairs, altar, even the pipe organ, are scaled down for youngsters. I had to duck to enter under the chapel’s iron gate. This change in scale was shocking to me and immediately struck me as I entered. Moving from the grand expanse of the nave to the reduced scale of the chapel offered me a strong sense of place.

Each image depicted in the altar display and the windows told the stories related to young men in the Bible – the young David, Jesus as a child, Timothy. Texts inscribed directions to children: “honor your parents” and stories of children’s contribution to ministry (loaves and fishes, for one example).

The imagery in the space also spoke to the imaginations of children. Gates bore the images of imaginary animals and details of sculpted birds or giraffes. Kneelers depicted the story of Noah’s Ark. Statues depicted Jesus as a child and welcomed children to interact with them.

The Observation Deck

The cathedral is its own place, but it also exists in place: the national capital. Notably, the cathedral sits atop Mt. St. Alban, one of Washington’s highest areas; and the cathedral’s central tower (410 feet above sea level) is the highest point in the district.

On the way out of the cathedral, I noticed a small sign about the “observation deck” on the 7th floor of the tower. The view from the windows displayed the beautiful architecture of the cathedral and a 360-degree view of the district, from its highest point.

The flying buttresses look very different from above, and the city stretches out to the south and east. I found it wonderful to examine the exterior of the building from above, and to situate the cathedral as the high point of the city.

Thanks to the panelists – Sharon Lauricella of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Timothy Huffman of Loyola Marymount University, and Kip Redick of Christopher Newport University – for an experience of space and place, and the opportunity to invest in a scholarly discussion of space and place from a variety of perspectives.

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