Houses of worship tend to have a distinct look and feel – but are these tropes out of date? We visit the buildings rewriting the rules for holy architecture.
For as long as the practice of architecture has been around, designing a religious building has been a coveted commission. But with secularity on the rise and the role that religion plays changing, the design of places of worship is shifting too.
These new examples of holy architecture might be focused on different faiths but they share an emphasis on bringing people together. Here, in finely designed contemplative spaces, the quiet antidote to the busy trials and tribulations of modern life can be found.
“With everyone constantly on the move, how do you find home?” says Axel Frühauf, partner at Munich’s meck architekten and the designer of this splendid new church in the Bavarian commuter town of Poing. “I think you find it with other people, where you can feel community. That is the reason why these buildings, for us as architects, are really good projects: they connect people.”
Architects have long been enchanted by the challenge of creating spaces for communion. But designing to counterbalance the busy and increasingly antisocial way we live today is especially important. And here, in this fast-growing corner of Germany, is a venue of rare tranquility that is bringing people together.
As you enter there is an immediate feeling of calm. Beams of light dance in a mesmerising fashion across the white walls; the soothing scent of oak wafts from timber pews; and a sculptural stone altar tabernacle shrine by Ulrich Rückriem with Alfred Karner demand attention. The overall vibe is peaceful and the architecture adds an ethereal edge. “You can just sit here and watch the light,” says Frühauf. “It’s different from minute to minute and it generates a contemplative atmosphere.”
Daylight is diffused through translucent screens from three entry points, symbolising the Holy Trinity. “There’s concept in every detail,” says Frühauf, pointing up to the unusual angular form of the roof that references the Holy Cross. While the engineering behind this building is impressive, its most moving moments are provided by harnessing nature. “We found the point where the church was closed in enough that it could form a contemplative environment but at the same time it has the right contact points with nature,” says Frühauf, referencing a large window that overlooks a neighbouring park and lake. “There is a fine line in finding this meeting point.”
There is also a fine line when commissioning a building of this nature. The German Catholic Church has been watching its coffers closely in the past few years after being rocked by spending scandals. To cater to a growing community in Poing, €12m was handed over for the building but cutbacks during construction meant that a neighbouring kindergarten included in the masterplan is yet to be erected. Meck Architekten was given an effective degree of creative control on the project. It has used the money wisely, giving birth to a building that has the capability to last centuries.
“Good architecture does not depend on the quality of materials,” says Frühauf. “You can make very good architecture with very cheap materials. But when you are building a church, you’re creating something that will stand for several hundred years so you need to spend a little more.” Still, he says, less was spent on this building than on some luxury condos rising in nearby Munich. As well as longevity, an important aspect of the commission was the use of design to make the experience of visiting the church feel cohesive. And from the smart bronze-cast sans-serif outdoor signage to the Hans J Wegner wicker-and-timber stools, the building radiates a well-crafted calmness.
The church’s exterior is notable for its use of two beautiful – and tough – materials. Nagelfluh, a natural German stone sourced from Upper Bavaria, encases the building’s lower core. The stone is formed over millions of years by the compression of earth on hard stones and pebbles. Where the nagelfluh symbolises Earth, the shiny sculpted shell that caps the building represents heaven. It comprises 15,000 glazed white ceramic tiles. “It’s a material so smooth and reflective that it plays with the light,” says Frühauf. “When looking at it from a distance the crown appears different almost every second.” He notes the architecture’s clear division of heaven and Earth. “In this field of tension, the church space is located.”
Whether they are religious or not, residents of Poing are proud of the town’s new landmark. For the increasing congregation, packed Sunday services are electrifying and solo worship is peaceful. But the architecture has a universal message too. “People today search for spaces where there is this kind of pureness,” says Frühauf. “That is the reason why this space is the church of today. But I don’t think this type of architecture should be reserved for churches; all architecture should deal with the issues that this building addresses.”
Set dramatically below the peaks of the Andes and above the city of Santiago, the Baha’i House of Worship for South America attempts to achieve perfection. “Baha’i writings talk about temples being as perfect as humanly possible,” says Siamak Hariri, founding partner of Canada’s Hariri Pontarini Architects and the man behind this building. “We kept thinking, ‘What is perfection?’” When Hariri responded to the open call for designs of the Baha’i House of Worship in South America, he found himself challenging his preconceived notions of this term. “In a world that is putting up walls, the design needed to express, in form, the very opposite,” he says. “It had to be open and welcoming to people of all faiths, walks of life, background or no faith at all; a new form of sacred space with no pattern or models to draw from.”
With origins in Iran, the Baha’i Faith was founded in 1844. Baha’i temples – known to members of the faith as “houses of worship” – are spaces where people of all religions can gather. The design of the temple in Chile reflects the core Baha’i principle of the “oneness of mankind”: its circular structure has multiple entrances, allowing up to 600 visitors to come and go with ease.
Numeric symbolism is also important in the religion and is pronounced in the design of its temples. As the highest single numerical digit, Baha’is believe that the number nine represents plenitude and completeness. With this in mind the temple is surrounded by nine paved paths leading to nine entrances where nine semi-translucent veils – made from frosted glass and Portuguese marble – drape and swivel around the surface of the dome. Daylight enters through the panes, casting a warm glow upon the main hall, where prayer and meditation take place.
In the evening, when worshippers and non-worshippers alike travel here from Santiago, the building takes on its most transcendental tone. As the sun sets, the temple lights up from within, softly illuminating its surroundings. “There is a line in the Baha’i sacred writings saying that if you pray to God and he answers your prayer, you will shine with his light,” says Hariri. “I loved this idea of the inner and the outer, like when you see someone and say, ‘That person is radiant.’ I thought, ‘How could we make something architectural out of that, where you create a building and it becomes alive with light?’”
The new As-Sobur Mosque rises dramatically from the jungle in Tulang Bawang Barat, a city in the Indonesian province of Lampung affectionately known as Tubaba. Planned but not yet completed, the city is in the early phases of what is a 10-part development masterplanned by Jakarta-based architect Andra Matin. Upon completion in 2050 it will have many more social and cultural spaces, including a market, a sports centre and a forest park. But for now, Tubaba is the place of one mighty mosque.
“As a transmigration city, Tubaba receives many people from Java, Sunda, Bali and other regions of Indonesia,” says Matin, highlighting the need to assimilate the disparate communities relocating here from overcrowded parts of the archipelago. “We wanted to build something that would provide a sense of belonging and ownership – and a mosque was a building that was inclusive enough for that purpose.”
The Indonesian archipelago comprises some 17,500 islands so, even if it is a Muslim-majority country, its cultures and communities are many and varied. As a result the mosque was designed in a manner that didn’t overtly impose religious ideals on new residents. As a place of tranquility it has already become a focal point in the centre of a new city; handsomely landscaped surroundings allow people of all backgrounds to appreciate the beauty of the building.
“We don’t want to represent cultures and force diversity into the design of one single building so the mosque was designed to be as neutral as possible,” says Matin. “We created a large waterscape over the site, with the lake and low landscaping making the mosque appear more majestic. Water also adds to the element of calm and is reflective, metaphorically and literally.”
The elevation of the monolithic concrete tower, which was completed last year, adds a dramatic but quiet tension to the project, given its contrast to the low-slung square podium on which it stands. Matin executed his idea of creating an inclusive building by doing away with the dome and minarets of a traditional mosque. Instead the tower is a polyhedral structure that is restrained and unornamented.
Though the building eschews the conventional tropes of a mosque so as not to exclude people of other faiths, the architecture remains guided by Islamic numerology to the point of piety. The square platform on which the concrete tower sits measures 34 metres on each side because a Muslim will perform 34 prostrations a day; the 99 roof openings, allowing a dappled pattern of sunlight into the cool concrete interior, are a reference to the 99 names of Allah; and there are 114 columns in the main corridor, one for each chapter in the Koran. Even the pentagon layout was derived from the number of daily fardhu prayers.
But the architecture has also been created with the intention of wooing worshippers of a different kind. “When the regent of Tubaba came to us he made it clear that he wanted the mosque to be a destination,” says Matin. “The area doesn’t have rivers, mountains nor seas. It is also quite hot and quite far away from everywhere else. Therefore we agreed that As-Sobur would be made a major tourist attraction and the first project we build.”