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American Society of Landscape Architects


June 2004 Issue

Spirit Under the Sky
Jane Blaffer Owen's modern spiritual gardens in New Harmony, Indiana, reconsidered.

By Christine Gorby

Spirit Under the Sky
Photo by Christine Gorby

"Only one roof was wide enough to cover all worshippers: the sky." With this guiding conviction, philanthropist Jane Blaffer Owen launched a collaboration with architect Philip Johnson to create the Roofless Church, a walled sacred garden in New Harmony, Indiana. Built in 1960, the Roofless Church is the best-known of five major gardens commissioned and created by Owen in this historic town in southwestern Indiana, the site of two successive utopian communities, the Harmonists and the Owenites, in the nineteenth century.

Owen's contributions to the New Harmony landscape are complex and difficult to categorize. Though not trained as a designer, Owen, who is now in her 80s, has collaborated with artists, architects, and landscape architects on the gardens. In the process she has played the roles of benefactor, client, and design visionary—sometimes simultaneously. The result is that it is difficult to attribute the work to any single person, but Owen's vision has undeniably guided the design of all gardens with which she has been involved.

Owen has attempted to create places of spiritual retreat for individuals and the larger community, and in doing so has drawn from many ideas and religious traditions. Although Owen—who had earlier dedicated her energies and personal fortune to the town's historic preservation—has worked within a rich historical context, she has resisted a literal reinterpretation of historical sites. The "spiritual perspective" guiding Owen's historic preservation approach parallels the philosophy of Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich, with whom she once studied: "To understand the present," she says, "means to see it in its inner tension toward the future." As a result, Owen simultaneously reinterprets and contrasts places and ideologies from the historic past while creating hopeful, forward-looking expressions. Accordingly, she has applied a spare, modern aesthetic anchored in references to traditional sacred forms, including monastic gardens and labyrinths.

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