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The Strength Of Sacred Buildings At The Beginning Of The 21st Century (PHOTOS)

First Posted: 12/12/2011 7:34 am Updated: 12/13/2011 11:47 am

By Lukas Feireiss, co-editor of 'Closer to God: Religious Architecture and Sacred Spaces' (Gestalten).

Architecture addresses and expresses. It touches and repels. It narrates and remains silent. It encloses and excludes. It is definitely permissible to speak of a language of architecture. The horizon of architecture covers a wide span across the history of mankind, from the basic housing afforded by the mud hut to the complex systems of cathedrals and skyscrapers. It would be naïve to suggest that this is a metaphorical way of speaking that could be avoided or even replaced.

No doubt, the formal repertoire of even the simplest building has a functional value and semantic quality that goes over and beyond it. It is therefore of no surprise that -- in particular, with buildings of religious designation - connotation and context are read as intelligible, tangible symbols of the content they embody. Reaching far beyond functional considerations, architecture's usual criteria of purpose -- access, capacity, construction technique and financial viability -- are simply not enough. More than any other type of construction, religious buildings seem to be essentially about the ideas they contain, and the abstract principles they materialize throughout the interplay of form and content. But apart from these narrative spatial values that cannot be accessed at first glance, religious buildings as bearer of meaning also demand in their spatial and artistic coherence the provision of social space as well.

The book Closer to God now brings together a unique selection of international examples of contemporary religious architecture of all faiths and denominations. Churches, synagogues and mosques of all sizes are collected here alongside Buddhist temples, wayside chapels and meditative places for quiet contemplation. What these buildings share is an avant-garde and often explicitly expressive formal language that shows an exciting relationship between traditionalism and a pioneering, future-oriented outlook. This focus on examples of architecturally progressive sacred buildings means that faiths which still cling firmly to traditional building styles and ideas–such as Islam and Hinduism, for example–do not feature very prominently in this book. It is all the more striking then to see how strongly architecture features as a vehicle for conveying ideas in Christianity and Judaism. The wide variety of stylistic approaches from all over the world presented here is vivid proof of the fact that 21st century sacred architecture is not dominated by a particular style.

In however diffuse and varied a form, the numerous examples of recently-built sacred buildings featured in the book Closer to God vividly illustrate the co-existence of traditional concepts and patterns hand in glove with modern principles, and novel approaches freed from the shackles of historicism in buildings of faith today. Despite their different, respective context and approach, all of these buildings not only thrive for the extraordinary and experimental, but are in their extroverted architectural stance also characterized by a deliberate spatial introversion, a distinguished sense of conscious retreat from the everyday into an innermost sanctum. Thereby their concepts are particularly ample in metaphors, usually unfolding an abundance of historical and thematic relationships in the fundamental formulation and development of the building's shape and narrative surplus.

Maybe the strength of contemporary sacred buildings a decade into the 21st century lies in their ability to allow the cracks and ruptures, contrasts and contradictions between the past and present co-exist. Offering us a level and a depth of contemplation that we cannot live without, and that we need to experience religion, the sacred building is still the image, the manifestation of a higher level of order and meaning. The building as a whole, its material form and individual elements, are a starting point for a journey of reflection that tries to exceed the visible to probe its intelligible basis.

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  • Church in Tarnów

    This small wooden church of rudimentary beauty and technical simplicity built on the high bank of the Vistula in Poland is a place of meditation and prayer for the local community. The privately funded building is made entirely of wood with no windows except for one glass wall, which serves as a background for the altar and offers a splendid view over the river and a distant horizon. The steep wooden roof blends seamlessly into the walls; the whole covering is made of small asp chops laid in a pattern. Apart from its function as a spiritual gathering place, the church in Tarnów also strengthened the local community by involving many unskilled local workers in the building process. The technology was therefore kept relatively simple: a concrete slab as a foundation, a timber structure as the main spine of the building plus the wooden cladding. Purely decorative details were completely avoided. (Photo credit: BETON)

  • Church in Tarnów

    The glass wall is the building's only window and serves as the background for the altar. (Photo credit: BETON)

  • Church of the Sacred Heart

    Munich's new Church of the Sacred Heart is an open, bright and lively building with a flowing, modular transition from the church- yard through the vestibule into the nave, a clear rejection of the restrictive symbolism of a massive enclosure. The center and focus of the liturgical space is the altar. The area around the altar is a variable structure that can be adapted for different religious celebrations. The interior of the church is formed by two diaphanous concentric shells of contrasting material properties. The glass outer shell allows light of changing intensity, color and refraction to penetrate the room. The inner shell is constructed of maple lamellae, the spaces between them widening towards the altar area to increase the brightness of light. (Photo credit: Florian Holzherr)

  • Church of the Sacred Heart

    The shell shapes are closed at both sides by two opposing portals: the entrance portal is heavy, mechanical, earthy, and colored a deep, dark blue. The portal behind the altar area is of a light, symbolic, almost virtual character. Both portals are decorated with cross motifs, which have a more decorative than meditative function. The large portal to the south can be opened at different angles, depending on the season and the celebration. When the portal is fully opened, the vestibule and the churchyard join to form a continuum of space. (Photo credit: Florian Holzherr)

  • Harajuku Tokyo Protestant Church

    This Protestant church is centered round a wide nave with six arches and a bell tower symbolizing the seven elements, the seven days of creation and the seven churches of the Orient. The Ciel Rouge vision was to create the impression of an open sky of biblical proportions from which the light and the Holy Spirit descend upon the worshippers. The softly curved arches tuned for fine acoustics resemble a hand held protectively over the crowd. The church, which doubles as a concert hall facility, also features small lodges discreetly positioned within the arches. (Photo credit: Ciel Rouge Creation)

  • Harajuku Tokyo Protestant Church

    Interior views. The sculptural ceiling symbolizes the hand of God. The custom-made seating by Japanese manufacturer Hohtoku features an angled backrest that doubles as a ledge for prayer books. (Photo credit: Ciel Rouge Creation)

  • Chapel del Retiro

    This chapel is a wooden box, built from recycled railway sleepers and suspended from the concrete structure above it. (Photo credit: Leonardo Finotti)

  • Holy Rosary Church Complex

    The design of the Holy Rosary Complex -- comprising an oratory, administrative block and religious education building -- for a rural Catholic parish in south Louisiana is an honest exploration of form, function, light and materials. Neither opulent nor austere, the Holy Rosary campus presents an engaging and profound meditation on sacred space and the spatial embodiment of spiritual experi- ence. The master plan creates a strong sense of place and draws a distinction between the sacred and secular components of the complex. The secular components are located in the linear or edge buildings -- an administrative block, two linear classroom bars, and a religious education building -- which form the courtyard in which the oratory is located. (Photo credit: Tim Hursley)

  • Holy Rosary Church Complex

    The oratory, or chapel, is the focus of the otherwise orthogonal composition, but is skewed to underscore its importance and create a sense of expectation. Working with a limited palette of pour-in-place concrete, plate glass and cast glass, the architects created a meditative environment that places great importance on spatial characteristics and the play of light on these humble materials. The design of the oratory is based on the concept of the womb -- a universal, pure and sacred space. All six sides of the oratory cube are equal in size, color and texture. The result is an interior space that feels encompassing, protective, and mysterious. Light enters through a variety of openings carved from the wall thickness without revealing a context or light source beyond. The obscured presence of light gives visitors a sense of orientation and is symbolic of the paschal mystery of Christ. (Photo credit: Tim Hursley)

  • Islamic Forum in Penzberg

    South of Munich, where the Alps rise beyond Lake Starnberg, is deepest Bavaria, a region known for its conservative Catholicism. And it is here, of all places, that a small Muslim community has built itself a forum with a prayer room in a contemporary architectural style, a courageous undertaking based on the wish for integration. With its distinctive but in no way confrontational appearance, the building and its delicate tower fit into the surroundings of an ordinary village, an already irregular structure with different rooflines and ornaments that range between rustic tradition and post-war monotony. The Augsburg architects arranged the prayer room, the communal and administrative facilities, and an apartment under a single roof on an L-shaped ground plan. Clad in pale stone, the façades clearly indicate the different functions of the rooms, particularly the slightly recessed full-length blue glass ornamented window on the eastern side. The entrance features two concrete slabs that swing out of the wall like open gates, inviting visitors into the house in German and Arabic script; the actual door, made of stainless steel, is open to all. Inside, one is greeted by a classical open-plan staircase, bathed in daylight. To the right, the view opens up into the beautiful prayer room. Daylight enters the room between curved concrete slabs from the side, and in muted tones through the blue glass wall at the front. The flow of light illuminates the ceiling and wall panels, where ornaments embellish the bare concrete. The abstracted star motifs proclaim the 99 names of God in calligraphy. (Photo credit: Ralf Gerard)

  • Islamic Forum in Penzberg

    View of the forum at night with its ornamented façade. (Photo credit: Angelika Bardehle)

  • Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation Synagogue

    The new LEED Platinum certified synagogue for the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation by Ross Barney Architects replaces the old building at the edge of a residential area, across from a city park and the commuter train tracks. The design balances the limitations of a small site with an ambitious program that uniformly promotes its worship, educational, and community objectives. The design criteria were developed through goal-setting workshops with the JRC board and building committee. The consensus opinion was that the building should symbolically reflect the values of Judaism and Reconstructionism, be as "green" as possible and make a sustainable transition from old to new: The existing synagogue was demolished and the new, larger building was built on the foundations of the old. Local demolition rubble was placed in wire cages to create gabion walls to retain the edges of gardens and children's playgrounds. (Photo credit: Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing Photographers)

  • Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation Synagogue

    The memorial trees that shaded the old building were cut down and reconstituted as paneling on the ceremonial door to preserve the memory of those associated with their planting and care. The new building has three floors with the congregation offices, early childhood program, and chapel on the first floor, the education offices, classrooms and library on the second floor, and the sanctuary, social hall, and kitchen on the third. Organized to create communal spaces, the design reflects the congregation's character of a multigenerational group for whom the building is home. The congregation has placed, throughout the building, their collected words -- lyrics, testaments, calls for protest -- to be added to and enshrined in the building as a permanent testament of the congregation's work. Art has been commissioned to contain the Torah scrolls and other ceremonial features. (Photo credit: Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing Photographers)

  • Lilja Chapel of Silence

    The Lilja ("Lily") Chapel is an ecumenical chapel of silence, the winner of a design competition organized by UPM Kymmene, the Wood Studio at Oulu University Department of Architecture et al. on the occasion of the Oulu Housing Fair in 2005. The challenge was to create a building identifiable as a sacred space yet one that does without traditional Christian symbolism. The second problem was that of creating a spatial hierarchy in a small building. The solution neatly combines a highly individual yet identifiable form that links a strong feeling for nature with the functional purpose of the building. The chapel is divided into three parts: the vesti- bule, the chapel itself and an outdoor chapel. The chapel is made entirely of wood, with the exception of the glass wall, which acts as the focus of meditation and a background for outdoor events. A water-jet cut plywood motif branches out between the sealed window elements. As light flows through the plywood figure, we are reminded of a forest, the primordial Finnish sanctuary. (Photo credit: Jussi Tiainen)

  • Lilja Chapel of Silence

    1. The chapel's glass wall also serves as the backdrop for the outdoor chapel. 2. Entrance situation of the chapel. (Photo credit: Jussi Tiainen)

  • Lumen Centre

    Commissioned by the Regent Square United Reformed Church, Theis and Khan Architects designed a new multi-faith center for worship and contemplation within the shell of a 1960s URC church. There are three main elements to the re-design: a café clearly visible from the street through a dramatic 8 m window, a new sacred space for contemplation within the main body of the church, and a new extension housing three community spaces. The former car park at the rear of the building was turned into a garden. The church members and architects chose two artists, Alison Wilding and Rona Smith, to create new three-dimensional art works for specific places in the building. (Photo credit: Nick Kane/Richard Davis)

  • Lumen Centre

    Interior view. The sacred space has a pivotal function within the church building dividing the new café from the main congregation space. It is lit by a single source of light 11 m above the floor; the light penetrates through the roof and draws the gaze upwards towards the sky. (Photo credit: Nick Kane)

  • Meditation Temple

    Created by Aaron Westgate, this one-person meditation temple is an exploration in micro-architecture. The temple is designed as a personal space for quietude and contempla- tion, a dedicated retreat from the outside world. In its form, the temple aims to evoke the spirit of meditation. Responding to a cyclical view of time, the circular eave climaxes in a central crest that represents the present moment between past and future. The walls have a chaotic exterior surface, but reveal order and symmetry within. The chambered shape creates a unique auditory environment, in which sound waves overlap and amplify around the occupant's head. Chanting, or even simple breathing, gains a rich resonance. The structure is composed entirely of byproduct construction materials salvaged from a new home in Montpelier, Vt. The design is a direct response to this self-imposed limitation and aims to show how familiar building components can be used in unconventional ways. The entire cost of construction was $ 28, spent entirely on glue and fasteners. (Photo credit: Aaron Westgate)

  • Meditation Temple

    1. The Meditation Temple on the forest borderline on top of a rock at Knoll Farm in Vermont, USA. 2. The chambered shape creates a unique auditory space. (Photo credit: Aaron Westgate)

  • Porciúncula de la Milagrosa Chapel

    The chapel in La Calera by Daniel Borilla has a basic geometry that tries to alter the territory as little as possible. It uses the natural features of the environment, the wind and the light, to create an essential harmony. The chapel is designed to open to the outside to allow worshippers to gather in great numbers, serving the needs of small private groups and large public functions, a transformation that is a telling symbol in a country of such emphatic contrasts. The relation between a still and a mobile volume represents "the passage between two worlds, between the known and the unknown, the light and the darkness. As the door opens, a mystery is revealed. It has a dynamic and psychological value, not only showing us a landscape, but inviting us to pass through it." This change of focus, scale and perspective also transforms the components of the chapel. The space traditionally reserved for the altar is given to the choir; the main nave is turned into the lateral nave, and the tabernacle becomes part of the landscape. The positioning of the building was scrupulously studied to make these structural variations possible. The materials work on the same principles, echoing the natural surroundings. The rigid structures are static as the stones, while the mobile body of steel, glass and wood forms an interwoven design. The reflecting pond, on one side of the chapel, dissolves the massive structure into the landscape, accentuating and distorting its volume to eradicate its density. (Photo credit: Alberto Fonseca)

  • Porciúncula de la Milagrosa Chapel

    Interior view of the altar space. The chapel is designed for small private groups and large public functions as large doors can transform the chapel from a still volume to a mobile space. (Photo credit: Alberto Fonseca)

  • San Paolo Parish Complex

    Situated in Perugia, Italy, the city of Foligno has endured its share of natural disasters, including destruction by earthquake on several occasions, most recently in 1997. The project was given the go-ahed in 2001 after wining national competition organized by the Italian Episcopal Conference for the construction of a new church. It is situated on the very spot of a container camp that once provided shelter to the homeless and is intended as a sign of hope for the area. The church building is conceived as a box within a box, and the interior view of the congregation space shows the two rectangles inserted into one another. (Photo credit: Moreno Maggi)

  • The Cross of New Asceticism

    Stephan Doitschinoff, the Brazilian street artist also known as Calma, has a unique visual language that embraces his eclectic influences. The son of an Evangelical minister, Doitschinoff spent his childhood absorbing the vocabulary of religious art. Themes in his work are inspired by an informed spiritual history and heritage, filtered through a distinctly urban point of view. The resulting imagery is rich in religious symbolism and often accompanied by Latin text as well as pichação (a style of graffiti writing native to São Paulo). He has emblazoned his emblematic and spiritual paintings on houses, churches and walls in rural villages in his South American homeland. His metaphoric imagery feeds off Afro-Brazilian folklore, pagan and alchemic symbolism and contemporary pop culture. Inspired by religious street festivals popular in Brazil, such as São João and Nosso Senhor dos Passos, he uses a variety of materials such as paper flags, silk fabric and hand-painted kites to create altars and emulate traditional processional decorations in site-specific installations. (Photo credit: Alexandre Vianna)

  • The Jewish Center

    Built on a strip of wasteland on St. Jakobs Square near the site of the eponymous Ohel Jakob Synagogue destroyed in the November pogrom 68 years ago, the Jewish Center by Wandel Hoefer Lorch is composed of three buildings: a synagogue and community center (run by the Jewish community), and the Jewish Museum (run by the City of Munich). The new buildings are integrated in the city center through their explicit use of public space. A succession of squares, paths, and passage-ways between the Jewish Center and the neighboring buildings emphasizes the open and public character of the complex. The free-standing synagogue, the main building, is set on a closed stone base with a filigree glass-steel construction rising from its center. The solid base is a metaphorical reference to the Temple of Solomon, while the metal mesh and glass construction of the lantern refers to the traditional portable tabernacle, or tent. The Jewish Museum is the smallest entity in the complex and acts as the communicating element between the synagogue and the community center. An introverted cube with a glazed ground floor, the museum echoes the material duality of the synagogue building. Displaying a palpable tension between fragility and mass, between openness and compactness, the museum building has its own identity and weight. The community center building is the largest element in the complex. Fragmented in different blocks, it has two undergrounds floors and six upper floors housing a youth center, an arts center, event rooms, dining facilities, a school, childcare facilities, and administrative offices. (Photo credit: Roland Halbe)

  • The Jewish Center

    Interior of the synagogue. (Photo credit: Roland Halbe)

  • You Make Me Feel Mighty Real

    This summer house, built originally for English Heritage at Belsay Hall, Northumberland, now resides at Grisedale Forest in the Lake District. The design is based on a Romanesque church. It is clad in thousands of metal discs, which create a pixelated pattern depicting oversized Romanesque decorations. The discs move and catch the light in the wind creating a magical effect of rippling light. Inside are two seats from which to contemplate the forest that is visible through the window. (Photo credit: Fashion Architecture Taste)

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