written by:
December 16, 2014
Originally published in A Fresh Start
as
Divine Interventions
Following the advent of modernism, sacred architecture continues to reinvent religious expression.
Modern religious architecture like Bruder Klaus Chapel by Peter Zumthor that is made of concrete and charred wood interior

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor— himself considered a bit of a enigma in a world that lauds celebrity designers—built the tiny Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in western Germany in 2007. The structure was created by arranging 112 spruce trees, pouring concrete on top until it set, then burning the wood, leaving a charred interior cavity.

Courtesy of 
Thomas Mayer
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Modern religious architecture like weinhof Synagogue corner laser-jet cut star of david pattern window

The Weinhof Synagogue in Ulm, Germany, replaces a former place of worship destroyed by the Nazis.

Courtesy of 
Yohan Zerdan
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Modern religious architecture like Weinhof Synagogue exterior

A freestanding, cuboid structure, the synagogue is signifcantly lower and more compact than its neighbors. 

Courtesy of 
Yohan Zerdan
3 / 21
Modern religious architecture like weinhof Synagogue corner laser-jet cut star of david pattern window

Kister Scheithauer Gross Architects designed a laser jet-cut Star of David pattern for the facade, which creates a corner window in the sacral room housing the Torah.

Courtesy of 
Christian Richters
4 / 21
Modern religious architecture like Weinhof Synagogue interior

The 600 openings subtly articulate the building’s function by day or night. 

Courtesy of 
Yohan Zerdan
5 / 21
Modern religious architecture like St. Moritz church with onyx coated glass

In 2013, dedicated British minimalist John Pawson tackled the interior renovation of the 1,000-year-old St. Moritz Church in Augsburg, Germany. While the layout remains traditional, modern touches like a thin onyx coating in place of stained glass add a luminescence that underscores the beauty of the traditional apses.

Courtesy of 
Gilbert McCarragher
6 / 21
Modern religious architecture like the St. Moritz church

Thin slices of onyx covering the windows diffuse natural light and draw the eye toward the apse. 

Courtesy of 
Gilbert McCarragher
7 / 21
Modern religious architecture like the St. Moritz church

Certain religious artifacts were relocated in order to achieve a clearer visual field inside the church.  

Courtesy of 
Gilbert McCarragher
8 / 21
Modern religious architecture like the Orthodox Christian church that was a storage shed with rib metal

In 2013, Marlon Blackwell took on an unconventional commission from an Orthodox Christian church in Arkansas, converting an old storage shed into a church with an exterior still clad in industrial box-rib metal.

Courtesy of 
Tim Hursley
9 / 21
Modern religious architecture like Shigeru Ban cardboard cathedral interior

Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban used his cardboard tube system for a temporary cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, that opened in 2013.

Courtesy of 
Stephen Goodenough
10 / 21
Modern religious architecture like Shigeru Ban cardboard cathedral interior

In lieu of a traditional steeple, the Cardboard Cathedral's A-frame rises nearly 80 feet. 

Courtesy of 
Stephen Goodenough
11 / 21
Modern religious architecture like Shigeru Ban cardboard cathedral facade

A polycarbonate roof and walls made of recycled shipping containers insulate the structure and protect it from rainfall.

Courtesy of 
Stephen Goodenough
12 / 21
Modern religious architecture like see-through chapel made of cor-ten steel

The Belgian firm Gijs Van Vaerenbergh constructed a see-through steepled chapel in Cor-Ten steel in 2011. 

Courtesy of 
Filip Dujardin
13 / 21
Modern religious architecture like the Sancaklar Mosque built on a hillside with stacked slate

Emre Arolat’s 2012 design for the Sancaklar Mosque outside Istanbul challenges the Turkish capital’s ubiquitous soaring domes and patterned minarets. Instead, the firm built the 13,000-square-foot mosque into the side of a hill and clad it in natural stacked slate. 

Courtesy of 
Thomas Mayer
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Modern religious architecture like the Sancaklar Mosque with an interior courtyard and prayer hall

The interior courtyard is a simple cave-like space with slits and fractures along the Qiblah wall that allow daylight into the prayer hall.

Courtesy of 
Thomas Mayer
15 / 21
Modern religious architecture like the Kamppi Chapel of Silence

Constructed as part of the World Design Capital program in 2012, the Kamppi Chapel is a sanctuary right in the heart of one of the busiests districts in Helsinki, Finland

Courtesy of 
Marko Huttenen
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Modern religious architecture like Kamppi Chapel of Silence interior

Known as the Chapel of Silence, the skylit, curved wooden structure is designed for quiet meditation. 

Courtesy of 
Tuomas Uusheimo
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Modern religious architecture like the St. Francesc facade

In the Catalan town of Santpedor, architect David Closes intervened on the remnants of a derelict Franciscan convent to create a modern auditorium. 

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Jordi Surroca
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Modern religious architecture like the St. Francesc facade

A glazed exterior stairwell scales the 18th-century stone facade.

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Jordi Surroca
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Modern religious architecture like the St. Francesc interior stairwell

To perserve the foundation of the original church, modern necessities, such as bathrooms and storage, are located away from the main chapel and nave. 

Courtesy of 
Jordi Surroca
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Modern religious architecture like the St. Francesc interior

Careful not to downplay the space's history, several traces of its former disrepair—such as inconsistencies in the original walling—remain on full display. 

Courtesy of 
Jordi Surroca
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Modern religious architecture like Bruder Klaus Chapel by Peter Zumthor that is made of concrete and charred wood interior

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor— himself considered a bit of a enigma in a world that lauds celebrity designers—built the tiny Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in western Germany in 2007. The structure was created by arranging 112 spruce trees, pouring concrete on top until it set, then burning the wood, leaving a charred interior cavity.

Sacred buildings fulfill a multitude of requirements, from the programmatic to the sacramental to the symbolic. Tangible links between the human and the divine, they serve not only as places for meditation, celebration, and community but also as testaments to something more abstract: faith.

Since World War II, modern religious architecture has relied less on historical styles and traditional symbolism than on novel forms and solutions, as in Peter Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, in Mechernich, Germany, which pays homage to the 15th-century Swiss mystic Nicholas of Flüe. It was built on a framework of tree trunks, atop which layers of concrete were poured and rammed. The logs were slowly burned, leaving a blackened chamber lit by an opening in the roof above and holes bored through the walls. “To me, buildings can have a beautiful silence,” says Zumthor. “A building that is being itself, being a building, not representing anything, just being.”

But religious architecture also continues to communicate place and history. When the Nazis destroyed their synagogue in 1938, the Orthodox Jewish community of Ulm, Germany, found itself without a permanent home. Nearly 75 years later, the Weinhof Synagogue and community center opened near the site of the original. The architecture firm Kister Scheithauer Gross oriented the freestanding cube to point to Jerusalem. In the room holding the Torah, the limestone facade has been pierced with a Star of David motif, the 600 openings subtly articulating the building’s function by day or night. 

Modern religious architecture like Weinhof Synagogue exterior

A freestanding, cuboid structure, the synagogue is signifcantly lower and more compact than its neighbors. 

When British designer John Pawson was tapped to transform St. Moritz Church in Augsburg, Germany, he found that fire, war, and time had all left their mark on the 11th-century structure. He infused the interiors with a bracing purity, a task that required “the meticulous paring away of selected elements of the church’s complex fabric,” he says. Light was key, from LED fixtures illuminating columns, arches, and domes to sunlight filtering through thin slices of onyx in the apse—an effect that he says “functions architecturally as a source of light and liturgically as an expression
of the threshold to transcendence.” 

Thousands of miles away, off I-49 in Springdale, Arkansas, architect Marlon Blackwell achieved simplicity of a different sort at St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. Constrained by an existing building that was once a metal shop, and a budget of $100 per square foot, Blackwell placed a narrow addition along the western portion of the property to orient the existing structure eastward, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, allowing for a skylit tower that defines the entrance to the sanctuary. “We used glass at the corners for a more volumetric introduction of light—it was almost surgical,” Blackwell says. The dome is a discarded satellite dish, adorned with an icon of Christ. Blackwell’s reuse of materials prompted the jury that recognized the project with a 2013 AIA Honor Award to note that the design “makes the most with the least, displaying deep resource efficiency as an integral part of its design ethos—something more architects should be thinking about and practicing.”

Architect Shigeru Ban has been reusing materials since the 1980s, when he first experimented with industrial-grade paper tubes. When New Zealand’s Gothic Revival ChristChurch Cathedral was devastated by a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in 2011, the Anglican community turned to Ban to create a transitional home. He responded with a simple A-frame design incorporating 98 paper tubes set atop eight steel shipping containers, topped by a polycarbonate roof. “Even concrete buildings can be destroyed by earthquakes,” says Ban. “But paper buildings cannot.”

Modern religious architecture like the St. Moritz church

Certain religious artifacts were relocated in order to achieve a clearer visual field inside the church.  

Other new religious buildings reject conventional typologies entirely. Outside Istanbul, a rectangular stone minaret rises from the 13,000-square-foot Sancaklar Mosque, which doesn’t so much rest on the land as become one with it, owing to Emre Arolat Architects’ intention to emphasize essence over form. Reached by stone steps that descend from the parking area, the mosque is a serene, cave-like space. Walls of slate and poured-in-place concrete define the 700-square-foot prayer hall, where a narrow skylight illuminates the Qiblah, signaling Mecca, which Muslims face during prayer. 

Further distilling religious space to its essence, Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh, of Gijs Van Vaerenbergh, played with the church form itself in rural Belgium in their surrealistic structure titled “Reading Between the Lines,” which is composed of horizontally stacked steel plates. The architects used 30 tons of steel to create a semitransparent work of art that appears as alternately solid and part of the landscape.

With religious attendance declining, along with signs of increasing secularism, the future of sacred architecture is uncertain. But the past 50 years have seen the creation of spaces that nourish and uplift and that inspire communion with something greater than ourselves. 

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