I taught sacred geometry and the art of using shape in the design of outdoor religious sites (and indoor sacred gardens). Courses covered the significance of geometric shapes in sacred settings: circles, triangles, pyramids, compass points, and others; (even the heavens are circles and ellipses…) and their use in sacred gardens dedicated to different faiths.
I had classes on the symbolism: labyrinths, meditation trails http://www.labyrinthos.net/photo_library12.html and the shape of altars, standing stones, arched entries and exits. Sacred geometry is found in Biblical gardens, Gaia gardens; Catholic rose windows, Native American medicine wheels; Celtic knot gardens, and monasteries; Zen Gardens; Islamic gardens; churches, temples, cemeteries, and tombs.
Shape is an elemental language. Certain shapes always mean certain things; shapes as symbols predate writing, they are visual shorthand. Shape affects us more than we know (as does balance as in feng shui). Since early people had no access to books, symbols were inscribed on trees, stones and the very soil. Early spiritual identity arranged objects in precise patterns. These were recognized markers for sacred, even secret sites: a signpost to ‘worship here’. A mismatched tower of balanced stones directed a seeker to a site. A circle of standing stones where nothing could be found but grassy moors identified Stonehenge, a form of geometry whose meaning encompassed eternity.
The altar would be a mere scattering of stones if it were not formed into a sacred shape. In sacred design the square or rectangle is a strong grounding shape: earthly, heavy, and stable in influence. The circle is symbolic of immortality and eternity; the spiral indicates an inward or outward journey. The triangle is associated with life, wisdom, water, procreation and the feminine.
My favorite classroom talk however, was about ‘thresholds’… the use of steps, stairs, and ladders to symbolically enter churches, temples and even kivas creates an ascending or descending spiritual journey http://www.stephenoachs.com/gallery-indian-kiva.php .
Look at your own place of worship the next time you enter. It is no accident it is not exactly on ground level. Even one step is a threshold. Your journey up (or down) the stairs to enter is your conscious decision to come into the presence of your god: the stairs reflect your increasing levels of determination, spiritual reflection, preparation and attitude. Walkways that cut back and forth to the entrance are the meditation trail upon which you mentally prepare to enter a sacred site.
All spiritual places have a ‘wall’: a form of boundary to divide ‘inside’ from ‘outside’, ('inside' the house of God; 'outside' the house of God)... to enter must be our own decision. We cross a threshold to do so. The actual act of walking through the door and stepping over the threshold to enter is when we commit to our faith. Once we do, we are in the presence of God.