Sacred spaces

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Cardeau Chapel, El Salvador by EMC Arquitectura. Simple yet striking architecture that provides space for diverse experiences, with a stunning view out to Lake Coatepeque.

Cardeau Chapel, El Salvador by EMC Arquitectura. Simple yet striking architecture that provides space for diverse experiences, with a stunning view out to Lake Coatepeque. Image: Tom Arban

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Cardeau Chapel, 2012. The austere concrete and steel structure manages to convey a sense of floating over the trees while still retaining a deep connection to the earth.

Cardeau Chapel, 2012. The austere concrete and steel structure manages to convey a sense of floating over the trees while still retaining a deep connection to the earth. Image: Tom Arban

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St Barnabas Anglican Church, Sydney by FJMT. The crucifix on the exterior of the building resembles Tadao Ando's cross of light, sending an unmistakeable message to passersby.

St Barnabas Anglican Church, Sydney by FJMT. The crucifix on the exterior of the building resembles Tadao Ando’s cross of light, sending an unmistakeable message to passersby. Image: John Gollings

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St Barnabas Church, 2013. One of two, the large light-catcher at the rear draws in sunlight from above, creating an ethereal atmosphere in the modern, minimalist space.

St Barnabas Church, 2013. One of two, the large light-catcher at the rear draws in sunlight from above, creating an ethereal atmosphere in the modern, minimalist space. Image: John Gollings

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Sancaklar Mosque, Turkey by Emre Arolat Architects. Built in 2012, the interior is designed as a simple yet dramatic cave-like space to encourage peaceful contemplation.

Sancaklar Mosque, Turkey by Emre Arolat Architects. Built in 2012, the interior is designed as a simple yet dramatic cave-like space to encourage peaceful contemplation. Image: Thomas Mayer

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Sancaklar Mosque. The unassuming exterior emphasises the continual connection between nature and the man-made, and blends in completely with the topography.

Sancaklar Mosque. The unassuming exterior emphasises the continual connection between nature and the man-made, and blends in completely with the topography. Image: Thomas Mayer

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The copper-clad Suvela Chapel by OOPEAA, 2016. A flexible, multifunctional building that welcomes all members of the community, regardless of their religious affiliation.

The copper-clad Suvela Chapel by OOPEAA, 2016. A flexible, multifunctional building that welcomes all members of the community, regardless of their religious affiliation. Image: Mika Huisman

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Suvela Chapel, Finland. A hybrid structure with wooden as well as concrete and steel elements. The interior is made of local spruce that creates a warm, welcoming atmosphere.

Suvela Chapel, Finland. A hybrid structure with wooden as well as concrete and steel elements. The interior is made of local spruce that creates a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Image: Marc Goodman

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Bahá’í Temple in Chile by Hariri Pontarini Architects, 2016. The luminous domed structure features nine monumental glass veils, emphasising transparency and openness.

Bahá’í Temple in Chile by Hariri Pontarini Architects, 2016. The luminous domed structure features nine monumental glass veils, emphasising transparency and openness. Image: Daniela Galdames

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With no clergy or rituals, Bahá’í temples encourage universal worship with all attendees treated as equals. This interior features incredible translucent Portuguese marble.

With no clergy or rituals, Bahá’í temples encourage universal worship with all attendees treated as equals. This interior features incredible translucent Portuguese marble. Image: Daniela Galdames

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Light of Life Church, South Korea by shinslab architecture + IISAC. The circular worship space utilises a multitude of red cedar trunks to create a stunning "interior universe".

Light of Life Church, South Korea by shinslab architecture + IISAC. The circular worship space utilises a multitude of red cedar trunks to create a stunning “interior universe”. Image: Lee Dong Hwan

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Light of Life Church, built in 2014. Through the extensive use of glass for the exterior, the church aims to create transparency and a connection with the surrounding forest.

Light of Life Church, built in 2014. Through the extensive use of glass for the exterior, the church aims to create transparency and a connection with the surrounding forest. Image: Jin Hyo Sook

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Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Germany by Peter Zumthor. Concrete was poured on top of a wigwam of 112 treetrunks and then set on fire, leaving behind a hollowed blackened cavity.

Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Germany by Peter Zumthor. Concrete was poured on top of a wigwam of 112 treetrunks and then set on fire, leaving behind a hollowed blackened cavity. Image: Samuel Ludwig

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Bruder Klaus Field Chapel. The mystical, dark interior contrasts with the solid exterior to create a reflective, sombre experience, with the gaze drawn upwards to an opening.

Bruder Klaus Field Chapel. The mystical, dark interior contrasts with the solid exterior to create a reflective, sombre experience, with the gaze drawn upwards to an opening. Image: Samuel Ludwig

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Bishop Selwyn Chapel, Auckland by Fearon Hay Architects. Multifunctional, welcoming and visually stunning, this gold-leafed chapel works perfectly with the existing building.

Bishop Selwyn Chapel, Auckland by Fearon Hay Architects. Multifunctional, welcoming and visually stunning, this gold-leafed chapel works perfectly with the existing building. Image: Patrick Reynolds

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Bishop Selwyn Chapel, 2016. An intimate, minimalist interior that features a strong connection with the surrounding landscape through glazing that can be completely opened up.

Bishop Selwyn Chapel, 2016. An intimate, minimalist interior that features a strong connection with the surrounding landscape through glazing that can be completely opened up. Image: Patrick Reynolds

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Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects. A circular building with a textured stone exterior topped by a wooden roof with clerestory windows that let light in.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects. A circular building with a textured stone exterior topped by a wooden roof with clerestory windows that let light in. Image: NAARO

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Bishop Edward King Chapel, UK, 2013. Slender timber columns create a dream-like sensation of being in a forest of tall trees, with the branches forming a latticed canopy overhead.

Bishop Edward King Chapel, UK, 2013. Slender timber columns create a dream-like sensation of being in a forest of tall trees, with the branches forming a latticed canopy overhead. Image: NAARO

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Cathedral of the Northern Lights, Norway by SHL Architects + LINK arkitektur. A landmark that symbolises the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights.

Cathedral of the Northern Lights, Norway by SHL Architects + LINK arkitektur. A landmark that symbolises the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights. Image: Adam Mørk

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Cathedral of the Northern Lights, 2013. Daylight enters the interior through narrow, irregularly placed windows, with a skylight lighting up the entire wall behind the altar.

Cathedral of the Northern Lights, 2013. Daylight enters the interior through narrow, irregularly placed windows, with a skylight lighting up the entire wall behind the altar. Image: Adam Mørk

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To create a space that brings solace, peace and a felt spiritual experience, while also addressing function, can be no easy task for an architect. Whether it be in the form of a church, temple, chapel, mosque or synagogue, buildings that are built specifically for religious activities have been with us for centuries.

Church of the Light by Tadao Ando in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. 1989.

The weighty power that religion has wielded through the ages has meant that these buildings are often some of the most permanent, expressive and influential within their specific community. Icons such as the Hagia Sophia in Turkey and the Notre-Dame de Paris in France epitomise the flamboyant, somewhat intimidating buildings of the past that were deeply rooted in tradition and greatly glorified religion.

Architecturally-designed contemporary sacred spaces often eschew conventional religious imagery, lacking traditional symbolic elements such as the altar and pulpit and the grandiose, embellished exteriors of the past.

Instead, elemental, restful and modest spaces that often have a reverence for natural materials are slowly becoming the norm. In addition to being a place for worship, these contemporary religious buildings are increasingly becoming adaptable, multifunctional spaces that also serve the needs of the community.

Light is often used by architects in clever ways to design religious buildings, with the play of light and shadow drawing to mind the deeper struggle of good and evil; heaven and hell. Tadao Ando’s minimalistic Church of the Light, built in urban Japan in the late 1980s, is a beautiful example of this. Through the intersection of light and solid, his architecture of duality serves to “create a place for the individual, a zone for oneself within society”, according to Ando.

Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France by Le Corbusier.

A sacred space typically features a soaring, high ceiling that indicates a sense of connection with God and the heavens above. When a high ceiling is not present, the space often opens outwards instead – to nature and to the community. Glazed features create transparency and indicate a welcoming, open attitude that many religions promote today. 

A look at religious architecture would not be complete without a mention of Le Corbusier’s famous Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, completed in 1954. The church is a classic example of Corbusier’s late work. It is considered a watershed in the history of modern religious architecture, for it was one of the first ‘spatially pure religious spaces’ that was void of decadence and extravagent detail.

For ten contemporary religious projects that have caught our eye recently, see the slideshow above and images below.

Cardeau Chapel, 2012. The austere concrete and steel structure manages to convey a sense of floating over the trees while still retaining a deep connection to the earth. Image:  Tom Arban
St Barnabas Anglican Church, Sydney by FJMT. The crucifix on the exterior of the building resembles Tadao Ando’s cross of light, sending an unmistakeable message to passersby. Image:  John Gollings
Sancaklar Mosque, Turkey by Emre Arolat Architects. Built in 2012, the interior is designed as a simple yet dramatic cave-like space to encourage peaceful contemplation. Image:  Thomas Mayer
Suvela Chapel, Finland. A hybrid structure with wooden as well as concrete and steel elements. The interior is made of local spruce that creates a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Image:  Marc Goodman
Bahá’í Temple in Chile by Hariri Pontarini Architects, 2016. The luminous domed structure features nine monumental glass veils, emphasising transparency and openness. Image:  Daniela Galdames
Light of Life Church, South Korea by shinslab architecture + IISAC. The circular worship space utilises a multitude of red cedar trunks to create a stunning “interior universe”. Image:  Lee Dong Hwan
Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Germany by Peter Zumthor. Concrete was poured on top of a wigwam of 112 treetrunks and then set on fire, leaving behind a hollowed blackened cavity.  Image:  Samuel Ludwig
Bishop Selwyn Chapel, Auckland by Fearon Hay Architects. Multifunctional, welcoming and visually stunning, this gold-leafed chapel works perfectly with the existing building. Image:  Patrick Reynolds
Bishop Edward King Chapel, UK, 2013. Slender timber columns create a dream-like sensation of being in a forest of tall trees, with the branches forming a latticed canopy overhead. Image:  NAARO
Cathedral of the Northern Lights, Norway by SHL Architects + LINK arkitektur. A landmark that symbolises the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights. Image:  Adam Mørk

For more religious buildings close to home, two recently-completed New Zealand chapels feature in the upcoming March/April issue of Architecture New Zealand magazine.


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