Hallowed Ground: the design of sacred spaces


Centres of worship hold a special place in people’s hearts, and working on a sacred space is always going to hold special challenges for the architect. Kay Hill looks at new religious buildings taking shape and talks to those who work on them


At one level, a church, mosque or synagogue is just like any other building – it will need the same foundations and fire regulations and planning considerations as an office building or community centre of the same size. Yet a place of worship has an importance in people’s lives far beyond the usual community building, presenting the architect with an additional sense of responsibility.

Julia Barfield of Marks Barfield Architects designed the new Cambridge Mosque with her late partner David Marks. ‘Essentially, the process is the same whatever the function of the building, although it’s very special and a huge privilege to design a place of worship,’ she says. Marks Barfield won an architectural competition to design the 1,000-capacity, £17m mosque, and their own religious affiliations (Marks was Jewish, Barfield has no religion) was not a factor. ‘With any building we design, we do a lot of research with the client and the building’s users to find out what their needs are,’ she says. Understanding what any end-user requires is part of the architect’s skill, she feels, and this can vary in difficulty from project to project. ‘For example, we recently designed a school for profoundly special-needs pupils with both mental and physical disabilities,’ she says.

Barfield researched mosque design exhaustively for the project, and found that there were very few design imperatives, with most buildings following the vernacular.

‘There’s very little that’s prescriptive about the design of a mosque apart from being orientated towards Mecca, some details about the mihrab and the minbar, and the necessity of the ablutions. Beyond that it’s very open to interpretation; there’s no definitive form as such. What we didn’t want to do was to create a replica or a pastiche of what exists elsewhere.

Cambridge Mosque by Marks Barfield for the Muslim Academic Trust. The wooden vaulted ceiling was inspired by the natural forms of trees, with the mosque conceived as an oasis of calmCambridge Mosque by Marks Barfield for the Muslim Academic Trust. The wooden vaulted ceiling was inspired by the natural forms of trees, with the mosque conceived as an oasis of calm

We wanted to create an English mosque for the 21st century. Mosques around the world have tended to follow local traditions of design and use local materials. We had a desire to touch on the universality of religious buildings; the challenge was getting the right balance between the contextual and the universal – something that was true to both Islamic and British architectural traditions.’

Cambridge Mosque by Marks Barfield for the Muslim Academic Trust. The wooden vaulted ceiling was inspired by the natural forms of trees, with the mosque conceived as an oasis of calmCambridge Mosque by Marks Barfield for the Muslim Academic Trust. The wooden vaulted ceiling was inspired by the natural forms of trees, with the mosque conceived as an oasis of calm

The most striking feature of the Cambridge Mosque, due to open in November, is the ceiling, calling to mind the fan vaulting in a cathedral chapter house. ‘We looked at mosques around the world and found one of the universal qualities was a garden, as nature is very important in Muslim tradition,’ Barfield says. ‘So we started with the idea of a garden, and of the mosque as being a calm oasis, like a glade of trees with a fountain of water in the middle. We also looked at the Gothic architectural tradition – the high point of English religious building, King’s College Chapel, couldn’t have been far from our minds.

Synagogue at 73 Clapton Common by John Stebbing Architect for the Bobov-45 Jewish community. The very traditional Jewish group decided that the contemporary cube, on the edge of a conservation area, would be preferable to a pastiche buildingSynagogue at 73 Clapton Common by John Stebbing Architect for the Bobov-45 Jewish community. The very traditional Jewish group decided that the contemporary cube, on the edge of a conservation area, would be preferable to a pastiche building

From those ideas came the vaulting of the mosque, with “trees” connecting in the middle.’ For Barfield, part of making the design fit with the ethos of Cambridge was to make sure that women were well catered for. In addition to the traditional women’s gallery, the design provides space for women within the main worship area. ‘Users of the mosque come from many different traditions so the design had to make sure that everybody felt comfortable. What started off as a high screen became a 900mm screen with gaps through, trying to feel our way to something that’s more akin to English traditions, so there’s a choice for women.’

Tom Stebbing of John Stebbing Architects is an expert on synagogue design, working especially with Hasidic Jewish groups in London. He has a similar challenge: ‘Separate entrances for males and females is a strict rule with a Hasidic synagogue, and women usually worship in a gallery behind a perforated screen. There’s no negotiation about this.’ Beyond that, there are relatively few necessities – the building must be aligned so worshippers face Jerusalem, and there must be hand-washing facilities at the entrance and a mikveh [ritual bath].

Synagogue at 73 Clapton Common by John Stebbing Architect for the Bobov-45 Jewish community. The very traditional Jewish group decided that the contemporary cube, on the edge of a conservation area, would be preferable to a pastiche buildingSynagogue at 73 Clapton Common by John Stebbing Architect for the Bobov-45 Jewish community. The very traditional Jewish group decided that the contemporary cube, on the edge of a conservation area, would be preferable to a pastiche building

While some Hasidic groups like to model their synagogues on the ones their ancestors attended in eastern Europe, Stebbing has just designed a striking modern building for the Bobov 45 group at Clapton Common. ‘They are a relatively young group following a schism about succession; as a result they didn’t have an architectural tradition as such. The site was right on the edge of a conservation area and the building next to it was a listed Georgian terrace so it was a historic, sensitive location. You can approach that in two ways – either with a pastiche or with high-end modern architecture. They would have tended to lean towards pastiche, managed to convince them that they would get what they wanted from a modern building. In the end they felt able to release themselves from the past, and the unanimous feedback was that they wanted high-quality modern.”

Venice Sanctuary Chapel by Foster + Partners for the Vatican. The Holy See commissioned 10 chapels by notable architects for the next Venice Biennale. The design began as three syumbolic crosses and a timber deck but was transformed during the design process into a tensegrity structure of cables and masts, clad with wooden latticework. Image Credit: Foster + PartnersVenice Sanctuary Chapel by Foster + Partners for the Vatican. The Holy See commissioned 10 chapels by notable architects for the next Venice Biennale. The design began as three syumbolic crosses and a timber deck but was transformed during the design process into a tensegrity structure of cables and masts, clad with wooden latticework. Image Credit: Foster + Partners

The resulting design, which has just gained planning permission, is a simple, limestone clad cube, with the front featuring a screen of overlapping steel circles in shades of grey, providing privacy and protection for the large windows to the worship area.

Stebbing feels that not being Jewish himself may actually make his work easier: ‘It’s the skills of being an architect that count; but being wide-eyed and amazed by it all helps you to be more receptive.’ He adds that as Hasidic Jews seldom have time around religious work and family commitments for the lengthy study involved in becoming architects, the community is used to looking outside its walls. ‘They don’t have a problem with me not being Jewish – they think that’s not really my fault – they just want a good architect, and we’ve learned the ins and outs of this beautiful and fascinating way of life. I’m not religious at all, but you have to have respect for other people’s spirituality to work with them successfully.’

Venice Sanctuary Chapel by Foster + Partners for the Vatican. The Holy See commissioned 10 chapels by notable architects for the next Venice Biennale. The design began as three syumbolic crosses and a timber deck but was transformed during the design process into a tensegrity structure of cables and masts, clad with wooden latticework. Image Credit: Foster + PartnersVenice Sanctuary Chapel by Foster + Partners for the Vatican. The Holy See commissioned 10 chapels by notable architects for the next Venice Biennale. The design began as three syumbolic crosses and a timber deck but was transformed during the design process into a tensegrity structure of cables and masts, clad with wooden latticework. Image Credit: Foster + Partners

Clifford Patten, director at Patten Lewis Chartered Architects, specialises in Christian church buildings. He says: ‘While an architect grounded in Christian theology and spirituality can help the church client to develop their ideas and understanding of who they are, some of the more surprising and expressive modern buildings were not produced by Christian architects. Our training should have prepared us to seek to understand and to question and this process can produce fresh approaches and memorable results as well as some misinterpretations.’

Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey, USA. The temple was designed by traditional hereditary architects to the form prescribed in ancient Sanskrit texts, and was made from Italian Carrera marble, Turkish limestone and Indian pink stone, mainly shipped to India for carving. It took three years to build and cost $18mBochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey, USA. The temple was designed by traditional hereditary architects to the form prescribed in ancient Sanskrit texts, and was made from Italian Carrera marble, Turkish limestone and Indian pink stone, mainly shipped to India for carving. It took three years to build and cost $18m

While medieval Christian churches and newer parish churches often orient worship towards the East, there are generally no fixed requirements, and while congregations may lean towards traditional forms like spires and Gothic influences, Patten notes: ‘The form following function mantra has created a wealth of Church buildings which are expressions of the nature of the Christian Church.’ With few design limitations, architects on Christian churches often are free to be imaginative, with buildings like Steyn Studio’s newly opened Bosjes Chapel in South Africa using the symbols of rolling hills and the image of God as a protecting people under his wing, or Foster + Partners Sanctuary Chapel for the Vatican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale formed from a rugged timber latticework inspired by the Cross.

Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey, USA. The temple was designed by traditional hereditary architects to the form prescribed in ancient Sanskrit texts, and was made from Italian Carrera marble, Turkish limestone and Indian pink stone, mainly shipped to India for carving. It took three years to build and cost $18mBochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey, USA. The temple was designed by traditional hereditary architects to the form prescribed in ancient Sanskrit texts, and was made from Italian Carrera marble, Turkish limestone and Indian pink stone, mainly shipped to India for carving. It took three years to build and cost $18m

For Cardiff architect Professor Adam Hardy, it was his in-depth knowledge of the Hoysala temples of India that led to him being commissioned to design a Hindu temple in Karnataka, India. The Professor of Asian Architecture at Cardiff University’s Welsh School of Architecture had been studying Hoysala temples from 11th-14th century India for nearly 40 years, so was thrilled by the opportunity to design a temple in the Hoysala style, but on a larger scale. ‘Most temples in India are done by hereditary architects. They design buildings but they don’t go through a modern school of architecture, they learn through the family and the knowledge is passed down through the generations. Temple architecture is vested in these traditional lineages and there’s a sense that you should employ one of these families that have been doing it for centuries.

‘Traditional architects are mainly doing Tamil-type temples, and this client had a particular vision and wanted a Hoysala style that nobody was doing any more – but I have been studying it from when I did my PhD and have immersed myself in it for years as an architect and an architectural historian, to the extent that I can think in the different styles,’ he says. The design and planning process has taken eight years, but construction is now underway, with a build time of 12 years due to the traditional building methods. ‘It’s totally traditional in the whole design language, but it’s not a copy of anything. It’s bigger and more complex in its form,’ Hardy says. ‘It’s much harder to do a traditional temple, but that’s what the client wanted and it was done through immersing myself in that tradition.

Temple in Stone and Light, Barmer, India by SpaceMatters for Raj West Power Company. The Hindu temple combines a traditional shape with modern construction in blocks of local Jaisalmer yellow sandstone. The design is intended to balance male and female, heavy and light and classic and contemporaryTemple in Stone and Light, Barmer, India by SpaceMatters for Raj West Power Company. The Hindu temple combines a traditional shape with modern construction in blocks of local Jaisalmer yellow sandstone. The design is intended to balance male and female, heavy and light and classic and contemporary

There were people who jumped out of the woodwork and said “he’s not a Hindu and he’s a foreigner so how can he design one of our temples?” But now I feel very much accepted.’

‘The form and symbolism of contemporary Hindu temples has remained largely traditional,’ notes Amritha Ballal founding partner at Space Matters, which has recently completed the Temple in Stone and Light in Barmer, Rajasthan. ‘Our client desired a temple rooted in tradition, but not a pastiche replica, rather something that stood for its time as well.’ The result shows how the contemporary and the classical can co-exist – from a distance the temple’s shape looks entirely traditional, but closer up it has a novel construction in local stone. Ballal explains: ‘The project was an opportunity to explore and establish contemporary interpretations of traditional typologies and building techniques.

The contextual response to the region’s architecture rendered a design which sought to push the boundaries of modern temple architecture without compromising on the symbolic aspects of temple design.’

Hindu temple at Venkatapur, Karnataka, India by Professor Adam Hardy for the Shree Kalyana Venkateshwara Hoysala Art Foundation. The Professor of Asian Architecture at Cardiff University (right) has studied Hoysala temples from 11th-14th century India for nearly 40 years, and has completed a traditional design that is on a much larger scale. The build will take more than a decade, and skilled handcarvers were so hard to find that the temple now has its own apprenticeship scheme.Image Credit: Akash Kumar DasHindu temple at Venkatapur, Karnataka, India by Professor Adam Hardy for the Shree Kalyana Venkateshwara Hoysala Art Foundation. The Professor of Asian Architecture at Cardiff University has studied Hoysala temples from 11th-14th century India for nearly 40 years, and has completed a traditional design that is on a much larger scale. The build will take more than a decade, and skilled handcarvers were so hard to find that the temple now has its own apprenticeship scheme.Image Credit: Akash Kumar Das

Despite the design freedom, Ballal was aware of the responsibility of working on a building that will be regarded as sacred: ‘There was an element of risk in deviating from a fairly entrenched perception of what a temple ought to look like. The project demanded faith, not necessarily of the religious kind, but from the clients to support the vision and the architects, engineers and artisans to come together in a dialogue. There is a certain kind of symbolism or sanctity that needs to be maintained while designing a building of religious importance – the ownership of such buildings is a community affair.’

The Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) Hindu group has been constructing new temples (mandirs) around the world, including the one in Neasden, with the most recent in Robbinsville, New Jersey. Its temples are designed by hereditary architects to the style and proportions in ancient Sanskrit texts, although conventional consultants are used to ensure adherence to local regulations. Art history expert and spokesman for BAPS, Ankur Desai, explains: ‘Building traditional stone mandirs in the modern world according to two sets of parameters, both ancient and new, certainly has its challenges. Specific elements of the design cannot be compromised, such as the proportions of the main sanctum, the presence of a superstructure over the main sanctum, and the use of gold finials and flagstaffs, precisely because these components contribute to the spiritual and ritual efficacy of the structure.’

Although Hindu worship can be carried out successfully in a contemporary building, Desai believes there is spiritual value in traditional forms: ‘Mandirs should visually convey the fact that they are sacred spaces, and the implementation of a traditional design greatly assists in reinforcing that image.

Hindu temple at Venkatapur, Karnataka, India by Professor Adam Hardy for the Shree Kalyana Venkateshwara Hoysala Art Foundation. The Professor of Asian Architecture at Cardiff University (right) has studied Hoysala temples from 11th-14th century India for nearly 40 years, and has completed a traditional design that is on a much larger scale. The build will take more than a decade, and skilled handcarvers were so hard to find that the temple now has its own apprenticeship scheme.Image Credit: Akash Kumar DasHindu temple at Venkatapur, Karnataka, India by Professor Adam Hardy for the Shree Kalyana Venkateshwara Hoysala Art Foundation. The Professor of Asian Architecture at Cardiff University has studied Hoysala temples from 11th-14th century India for nearly 40 years, and has completed a traditional design that is on a much larger scale. The build will take more than a decade, and skilled handcarvers were so hard to find that the temple now has its own apprenticeship scheme.Image Credit: Akash Kumar Das

Ultimately, it is important for those who participate in the construction of mandirs to understand the underlying spiritual principles that motivate such endeavours. These mandirs not only represent structures of the highest quality, but also the most cherished religious values of the community that commissions them. Respecting the process of building a sacred structure extends to respecting the community itself.’

Through all the different requirements of faith buildings, architects do see some constants. ‘One thing’s always the same – you have to deal with fund-raising committees,’ laughs Tom Stebbing, before adding, more seriously, ‘There’s the need for a purity of space and keeping things simple. And there are concentric rings of space as you move from the public to the sacred; you need to be aware of that and not disrupt it when you’re trying to fit in something practical like a toilet.’

Within Christian churches, this transition often reflects the fact that modern buildings are frequently used for community activities as well as worship, adds Patten. ‘We all respond to the architecture of the spiritual space, the thin place.

The grand entrance to a cathedral or the small low entrance door to a medieval parish church expresses the nature of the space and creates a limited transition, enough to define and create the space. Interestingly, in the 20th century spiritual spaces moved from places with a sudden transition to create the “wow factor” to buildings that reflected the desire to create community links and this has often been expressed in creating large and welcoming transition spaces.’

‘The journey you take from the street into the contemplative space is very important,’ says Barfield, explaining that at the Cambridge Mosque ‘first you go into the big garden, then the private garden, then the courtyard, then through the ablutions areas and finally into the prayer hall. All these stages are preparing you for a more meditative state as you proceed deeper into the building’. And that is at the heart of why creating places of worship is a particular challenge – the need to create not just usable, beautiful space, but sanctity itself.

‘It is an interesting exercise to design a religious building in a secular society as one is not steeped in the codes and ritual which would have been familiar to traditional temple builders,’ says Ballal. ‘The space has to meet the religious symbolism which is specific to a religion and its followers, but it also needs to achieve a mystical, spiritual presence that is more elemental and universal.’

Bosjes Chapel from The Architect, Coetzee Steyn

Q+A

With Bosjes Chapel from The Architect, Coetzee Steyn

As an architect, is it any different working on a place of worship than on any other project?

This was our first commission of this kind, and it was different. Our investigative processes are always very in depth on all projects, however the fact that this is a ‘public’ building, it had to evoke some form of emotional experience and the supportive ‘licence’ the client gave us, turned it into something special.

Is there more emotional investment from the client in this type of project?

 Maybe less emotional investment I would say. We were not designing their own house, which could be much more emotionally involved.

We were also designing it to be as visually inclusive/appealing as possible. This allowed the chapel as well to take on its unique identity.

Bosjes Chapel from The Architect, Coetzee Steyn

Is there more tendency to stick to traditional forms (obviously not in this case!)?

The original meaning of church, in Christian terms, did not refer to a building, but the assembly of believers. Therefore people could have assembled anywhere; under a tree, in someone’s house or a even cave. Even the Moravian mission churches of the Western Cape, which partly influenced the Bosjes chapel, started out their lives as appropriated farm homesteads. Therefore, from this point of view, it could take on any form.

Is it necessary or helpful to share the faith of the client? Or is it more helpful to come to the design as an ‘outsider’?

 Sometimes ‘outsiders’ can get to the essence of something.

Is there common ground in the architecture of worship spaces across different faiths, in your opinion?

All share the notion of spirituality; so in that respect yes..





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