Divine architecture: modern religious buildings

Architecture has always had a role to play in religious worship - here's our pick of the best modern religious buildings, from one of the largest mosques in the world to a diminutive chapel built to honour a 15th-century hermit

The church of St Moritz, Germany


Photo: © Jens Weber

Having seriously considered becoming a monk in his youth (he briefly entered a Zen monastery in Japan before realising his true calling was design and architecture), John Pawson has shown a particular affinity for religious buildings. His minimalist, even ascetic style seems uniquely suited to the creation of spaces for deep contemplation and spiritual reflection, and the church of St Moritz in Augsburg, Germany is a perfect example.


Photo: © Jens Weber

Having been damaged over its thousand-year lifetime by fires and wartime bombing, the church was in need of architectural healing: Begining in 2008, Pawson's role, as he describes it, was to 'retune the existing architecture, from aesthetic, functional and liturgical perspectives, with considerations of sacred atmosphere always at the heart of the project'.

Notre Dame du Haut, France


Le Corbusier, Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, 1955 Photo : Paul Koslowski, 1997

A destination of architectural pilgrimage, Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp is a classic example of the late work of Franco-Swiss maser architect and designer Le Corbusier.

Completed in 1954 it is also considered a watershed in the history of modern religious architecture. The chapel is a simple design with two entrances, a main altar, and three chapels beneath towers.


Le Corbusier, Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, 1955 Photo : Paul Koslowski, 1997

The structure is made mostly of concrete and is enclosed by thick walls, with the upturned roof supported on columns embedded within the walls, like a sail billowing in the wind.

Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Switzerland


Described by architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff as 'a shaman, a mystic of his craft', Swiss Pritzker Prize-winner Peter Zumthor is a natural when it comes to religious buildings. Zumthor, who began his career as a cabinet maker, is said to live an almost monastic life in a Haldenstein, Switzerland, and he shuns purely commercial projects in favour of creating an 'architecture of the senses'.


Zumthor's Bruder Klaus Field Chapel is case in point: commissioned and built by a local farmer, Hermann Josef Scheidtweiler, in honour of 'Brother Klaus', the religious mystic and 15th-century hermit who is the patron saint of Switzerland, this tiny modern building feels like it may always have been here.

Its very construction resembles a religious ritual: first was constructed a simple concrete tower rising 12m in 24 tiers, and the interior lined with a wigwam made of 112 tree trunks. Then layers of concrete were poured and over the existing surface. When the concrete had set, the wooden frame was set on fire, leaving behind a hollowed blackened cavity and charred walls.

The Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan Mosque, UAE


Photo: Speirs + Major

Completed in 2008, The Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan Mosque was designed by architects Halcrow Group and Spatium Architects (interior) and has a dramatic internal and external lighting scheme by Speirs + Major. Accommodating more than 30,000 worshippers, it is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and the eighth largest in the world.

As the Islamic religious calendar is based on the lunar cycle, the moon became a source of inspiration and a unifying element of the design. The building alters character as the lunar cycle progresses, bathed in cool white light at the full moon, but shifting colour every two evenings, and growing gradually bluer as the moon wanes. On the fourteenth evening the mosque is lit in deepest blue to signify darkness - yet the viewer is never able to perceive the building changing from one colour to the next.

Martin Luther Church, Austria


Photo: © Duccio Malagamba

With its curvaceous roof made of 8mm thick steel and Daliesque 20 metre-high bell tower, the Martin Luther church could easily be mistaken for stylish concert hall or art gallery from the outside.


Photo: © Duccio Malagamba

In fact its design, by Austrian architecture practice Coop Himmelb(l)au, is based on theological principles: a trinity of large openings in the roof let daylight into the church creating heavenly pools of light among the white stucco of the interior. Much of the building was constructed and assembled off-site using ship-building technology meaning that construction took less than a year.


Photo: © Duccio Malagamba

Cathedral of the Northern Lights, Norway


Photo: © schmidt-hammer-lassen-archittects

Situated in the Norwegian town of Alta, some 500km north of the Arctic Circle, the Cathedral of the Northern Lights is the result of a collaboration between two architecture practices, Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects and LINK Arkitektur.


Photo: © schmidt-hammer-lassen-archittects

According to Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, 'the city council of Alta did not just want a new church: they wanted an architectural landmark that would underline Alta's role as a public venue from which the natural phenomenon of the northern lights could be observed.'


Photo: © schmidt-hammer-lassen-archittects

They certainly got their wish with this dramatic building which spirals upwards to a belfry 47 metres above the ground. The facade, clad in titanium, reflects the ethereal northern lights - when they deign to appear, that is.

The Weinhof Synagogue, Germany


Photo:© Christian Richters

Built on the spot of a synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938, The Weinhof Synagogue in Ulm, Germany, is a quiet, respectful building, but one that exhibits great skill and sensitivity on the part of architect Kister Scheithauer Gross.


Photo: © Yohan Zerdoun

The Star of David is used in repetition to create patterned windows in the building's limestone walls, which themselves make reference to traditional Jerusalem limestone, though in fact Dietfurt limestone was used instead as it is it is more hardy against to colder German climate.


Photo: © Yohan Zerdoun


Photo: © Yohan Zerdoun

Lotus Temple, India


Shaped like a giant lotus flower, this architectural wonder was designed by Iranian-Canadian architect Fariborz Sahba and completed in 1986. It is a Bahá'í House of Worship, meaning worshipers of all denominations are welcomed.

According to the architect, the Lotus flower represented by the form of the building represents that idea that 'out of the murky waters of our collective history of ignorance and violence, mankind will arise to inhabit a new age of peace and universal brotherhood'.

In accordance with the architectural principles stated by `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the religion, the building is a nine-sided circular shape made up of 27 free-standing marble clad 'petals' arranged in clusters of three.

Bishop Edward King Chapel, UK


Photo: © Níall McLaughlin Architects

Designed for Ripon Theological College in Cuddesdon, near Oxford, this chapel by Níall McLaughlin Architects was shortlisted for the 2013 Stirling Prize for architecture and won an RIBA award. The building encapsulates two architectural images: the first is a gentle hollow in the ground, meant as a meeting place for the community; the second a delicate ship-like timber structure that rises into the treetops to gather the light from the leaves.


Photo: © Níall McLaughlin Architects

For the exterior, the architects chose a sandy-coloured stone, which is similar to the limestone walls of the nearby 19th century college building. Inside is a beautiful, complex timber stucture.


Photo: © Níall McLaughlin Architects

The clients for the project were the college itself and a small community of nuns resident on the site, the Sisters of Begbroke.


Photo: © Níall McLaughlin Architects

Sancaklar Mosque, Turkey


Photo: © Emre Arolat Architects

Designed by Emre Arolat Architects, the Sancaklar Mosque deliberately eschews the traditional architecture often associated with mosques and instead focuses on the 'essence of religious space'.


Photo: © Emre Arolat Architects

The building sits in a prairie landscape that is separated from surrounding suburban gated communities by a busy highway. The design constantly plays on the juxtaposition of 'natural' and 'man-made' contrasting slabs of concrete with natural stone steps and brick walls.

High walls surrounding the park on the upper courtyard of the mosque create a symbolic boundary between the chaotic outer world and the serene atmosphere within, while a long canopy stretching out from the park is the only architectural element visible from the outside.


Photo: © Emre Arolat Architects

'There is no formal definition for a mosque in the Qu'ran,' Gülden Canol of Istanbul-based Emre Arolat Architects has said. 'In Islam the emphasis is on the essence of a space rather than the form.'


Photo: © Emre Arolat Architects

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