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The spirit is weak

review - New Sacred Architecture By Phyllis Richardson. Laurence King, 2004. £45

The problems with this book start even before it begins. Firstly the title: 'sacred architecture'.

What's that? Here it mostly means the kind of architecture that fills those coffee-table books of nice houses. The cover, featuring the Glass Temple in Kyoto, presents a minimal white space that could easily come from the pages of Elle Deco, despite it being a mortuary chapel.

Synagogues jostle with cathedrals, private chapels with Islamic cultural centres - all presented under excruciatingly banal, often oxymoronic, headings including 'New Traditions', 'Retreats' and 'Grand Icons'.

The 20th century saw an extraordinary debate about the nature of, or even the possible existence of, sacred space. Serious-minded Modernists applied themselves to the problem of the renewal of church architecture: Mies wrote the introduction to Rudolf Schwarz's dense but powerful The Church Incarnate in 1938, while Otto Bartning, Dominikus Bohm, and his son Gottfried radically redefined the language of ecclesiastical space.

These are among the neglected key works of Modernism, ignored in favour of the more obvious and less controversial delights of glass houses and grand museums. Swiss and German architects laid the ground for a real engagement with liturgy, use, worship and form, and from the 1920s to the early 1950s, ecclesiastical architecture was in the vanguard of the avant-garde.

All this serious-minded Modernist exploration petered out in the post-Corbusier mania for expressive form - Ronchamp has a lot of rotten churches and empty architectural gestures to answer for. And sure enough, here is an introduction that embraces Philip Johnson and Peter Zumthor, Frank Lloyd Wright and Oscar Niemeyer in an entirely unenlightening way. At no point here, or in the rest of the book, is there an attempt to engage with anything but the superficial, the look.

The starchitects are here, few delving into religious buildings with any great conviction.

The sculptural gestures of Greg Lynn and Richard Meier are well served by the format, although, to the author's credit, there are some more thoughtful works here. Among them are Reitermann/Sassenroth's Chapel of Reconciliation in Berlin, Wandel Hoefer, Lorch & Hirsch's New Synagogue in Dresden (the best stuff is still coming out of Germany), and Tony Fretton's Faith House in Holton Lee.

The problem with this book is that it seems to be aimed at two markets: the straightforward coffee table and the inspirational/aspirational.

Architects across the world will look at this book and nick ideas for their new chapels and church halls, and the results will be more superficial still, as nowhere here is there any semblance of explanation or exploration of the liturgical or ritual use of these spaces. They are presented as nice interiors or 'icons'.

The book achieves what it sets out to do - collating nice pictures of randomly chosen examples of a spuriously defined building type. That's fine in a magazine but not in a book of this size and expense. Look at European Church Architecture 1950-2000 (AJ 1.5.03) for a more serious effort - German, of course.

Edwin Heathcote is architectural correspondent of the Financial Times

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