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This week’s issue reminded me of a childhood awakening to architecture

Religion remains a faithful and long-standing client of architecture

One of my earliest memories is the happiness of a particular Sunday morning, reclined on a church pew nursing a bottle of milk, lulled by the hum of prayers and a view of the ceiling fans – silent whirling dervishes in a white space fractured with coloured light.

There is a touch of the sublime in the memory, a transcendental childlike feeling of security and delight – a bright open space full of people; the opposite of lonely.

It was a 1960s church in Ontario, a kind of Scandinavian-influenced, modern glulam A-frame with multi-coloured windows. Like many churches, the architecture has since been tinkered with in several unfortunate ways: the relocation of the choir, the removal of artwork and carpeting over the original terrazzo floor.

Light is a universal signifier in religion; what is architecture but the play of light and shadow?

But its ordinary design, with requisite extraordinary moments, captures what is sacred and specific to the successful design of places of worship.

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger has described the importance of not confusing the sacred with the crude ‘wow factor’. ‘When 50 years ago, Ronchamp was a new, unusual space, complex space – mysterious space – it was, in and of itself, a signifier of the sacred,’ he writes.

Forget the simple demands of shelter – you might argue that religion is actually what ‘Architecture’ was invented for, as Rory Olcayto concludes. Light is a universal signifier in religion, and what is architecture but the play of light and shadow? Both religion and architecture occupy this turbulent realm of polar opposites – the mystery of solid and void, presence and absence, darkness and light, not to mention cornerstones, foundations and ascensions to heaven.

In this issue, we explore the architecture of three distinct faiths with a historic look at mosque design in Britain, a critical appraisal of a synagogue by Van Heyningen and Haward, and a piece on how DRDH Architects approached the design of a Baptist church for the American Midwest.

Religion remains a faithful and long-standing client of architecture, and despite the decline in Protestant attendance, non-conformist churches such as the Baptist faith have been growing vigorously over the last 20 years. 

But devout or atheist, the attempt to capture both the human and the transcendental in built form lends itself to any building type. Architecture is one of the few ways to orchestrate an experience of the sublime. Religion has not gone away, although with the secularisation and commercialisation of society, architecture’s transcendent moments have crept into non-religious architecture, from Santiago Calatrava’s bridges to David Chipperfield’s art galleries.

As Karsten Harries says in Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture, ‘The sacred needs architecture and architecture needs the sacred’. In these challenging economic times, with churches hit by changes to VAT rules and competing to attract donations and congregations, these two old friends may need each other now, more than ever.

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