Call to faith

A flourishing of new churches and chapels shows architects and designers eagerly embracing that rare opportunity for craftsmanship and the creation of transformational spaces that aren’t trying to sell you anything – except, of course, salvation. Veronica Simpson seeks illumination

More than for almost any other building type, the architectural language of churches up until the Reformation was clear, consistent and overpowering: like the first true superbrand, a format was devised by the Catholic church early on and hammered home repeatedly. It was all about impossible heights and miraculous light - shards of richly coloured sunlight filtered through stained glass, or clerestory windows bestowing their luminous blessings from on high.

Mystery and opulence were the order of the day: the mystery, for example, of how medieval craftsmen engineered roof arches that tower 30m above the congregation; and opulence like no ordinary churchgoer ever experienced in their dirt-floored estate cottage or urban hovel. It's not hard to imagine the impact on the largely illiterate medieval masses of all those structural gymnastics, gravity-defying ceilings, gilded statues, exquisitely carved stone and wood icons, or the sumptuous paintings and murals evoking all the high drama of that first and most compelling of internationally syndicated soap operas.

Ask someone to think of a typical church now and, nine times out of 10, it is this model that will most immediately spring to mind. However, in the post- Reformation era other very distinct and different styles of faith building have emerged. Lou Kaloger is pastor at Tampa Covenant Church in Florida, and a lecturer in the history and theology of religious imagery. He clarifies: 'There are four types of church. There's the older approach, which sees church as sacramental reenactment, filled with pageantry, where the story of faith would be re-enacted on a weekly basis. There are Reformation churches - worship space as educational edification where the altar is the primary focal point and the pulpit is brought front and centre. These are church settings that look more like lecture halls. Beyond that, especially with the Plymouth Brethren and Quakers, seats are facing each other and the idea is to find the presence of God in each other.' The fourth, especially prevalent in the USA with its massive evangelical movement, is what Kaloger calls 'worship as entertainment experience. There's a sound stage and the band is front and centre'.

In briefing Alfonso Architects to design a new sanctuary for their multi-denominational congregation, Kaloger and senior pastor Eric Meyer were clear that they wanted to 'express the first three models', to be 'rooted in the past' but also look to the future, encapsulating what they call 'ancient future faith'.

At the outset, Kaloger admits: 'We were probably imagining something that would look more like a conventional Presbyterian church To their credit, the architects wanted to talk about theology. So for two, two-hour sessions they were learning about theology of space and theology of time.' Aesthetics weren't even touched on until after these exploratory meetings. What the architects then presented in their drawing 'scared us a bit, but it also felt appropriate. It felt like us, yet it wasn't anything like we'd ever imagined'.

Alberto Alfonso and his team have created a contemporary and uplifting space that weaves the religious narrative into the design in subtle and inspiring ways. For example, the 14 pendant lights that line the central aisle represent the 14 stations of the cross. There is a dramatic fabricated carbon steel wall on one side, with candle boxes set deep within seven compartments - referencing the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest. A rustic stone wall to the right of the altar leads to a small chapel, accessed via a curving passageway. Says Kaloger: 'The Holy Spirit talks about the living stones. The curves are a reference to the spirit coming as a mighty wind.'

The aesthetics and plan all work to enhance the various activities of this dynamic faith community. It is multifunctional, not 'multipurpose' - 'we didn't want basketball hoops to descend from the ceiling', says Kaloger. 'There are pockets of ministry that can take place in various areas. People can spend time by the candle boxes or the stone chapel...One of the challenges we found was how to depict Christ. We found the best way is in a setting that is beautiful in and of itself but on the days of festivities create specific pieces of art.'

Ministers and their congregation are, says Kaloger, delighted with their new building. Has it enhanced their faith practice? 'We were always an arts community,' he says. 'Our music ministry attracts a lot of very good musicians. This building adds credibility. They are in a setting where the imagination can be free.'

Architect Alberto Alfonso has woven a few well-placed touches of art and antiquity into the space, from the 3m x 3m stucco wall frieze that he created by hand and that references the process of the building, to the 120-year-old, cast-iron bell, salvaged from a demolished church, that graces the new bell tower. 'By our standards, that's old,' he quips. 'The bell represents the juxtaposition of old and new, the "ancient future" theology of the church. It resonates with a deep, authentic sound and encourages human interaction with the building.'

Mystery, delight and craftsmanship are all present in this project, as with all the case studies here. There is nothing new in the design elements or even the materials that inform these contemporary faith spaces, though there is an exuberant creativity in the way they are used. Light remains a powerful tool for invoking stillness and wonder, whether it's the shifting patterns of sunlight that play across the Tree of Life Chapel's simple wooden slats or the numinous beauty of the Martin Luther Chapel's ceiling as its curves capture the light at dusk.

As with the Tampa Covenant Church, the religious narrative has become written into the structures and furnishings, rather than posted up in paintings, tapestries and statues. And height is no longer the prerequisite for inspiring awe. After 100 years of the skyscraper, religious buildings have quietly stepped away from the vertiginous to embrace either a sense of gentle enclosure or playful asymmetry.

Whether these seductively different and beautifully crafted spaces are sufficient to convert the heathen masses is another matter. Many would argue that they simply serve to amplify the spiritual experience for those who are already that way inclined. A spokesman for Worth Abbey, the Benedictine monastery that had the vision to employ Thomas Heatherwick to renovate and furnish its iconic Sixties' church, states: 'The good, the true and the beautiful are gateways that lead us to God. The arts are an expression of all three and so monasteries have always valued architecture, music and all the arts.'

Which also goes some way to explaining the continuing appeal of faith spaces for architects and designers who are, by and large, rationalist atheists or agnostics - after all, who could resist a brief to express the divine in their work or join the dazzling cast-list of architects whose religious buildings are the subject of tourist pilgrimages the world over?

Regardless of religious orientation, there are leading thinkers who feel that communal faith spaces can - and should - continue to play a vital role in 21st century culture. Confirmed atheist Alain de Botton argues most convincingly in his new book, Religion for Atheists, that they present a unique opportunity to knit disparate communities together in a way that our tribal, segregated lifestyles increasingly preclude. He asserts that the quality of the building itself is key in establishing a 'distinct venue, which ought itself to be attractive enough to evoke enthusiasm for the notion of a group. It should inspire visitors to suspend their customary frightened egoism in favour of a joyful immersion in a collective spirit.'

De Botton issues a call for more temples and shrines that could be dedicated to anything which anchors our spiritual awareness, our community-mindedness, and our appreciation of a place, whether it's the spirit of a city, or 'the purifying calmness of the deserted tundra'. He writes: 'These temples would function as reminders of our hopes... they would all be connected through the ancient aspiration of sacred architecture: to place us for a time in a thoughtfully structured three-dimensional educate and rebalance our souls.'

He has even put his money where his mouth is - apparently commissioning Swiss architect and Pritzker Prize-winner Peter Zumthor to build a secular spiritual retreat. In the interests of more similarly inspiring commissions for artists, architects and designers, we can only offer up a hearty 'Amen!'.

Worth Abbey Church
Sussex, England

Worth Abbey is a Benedictine monastery in Sussex with a striking, circular church at its centre, designed by Catholic architect Francis Pollen. It is considered one of the finest examples of Sixties church architecture, but the Abbey never got around to providing permanent furniture until last year, when Heatherwick Studio was commissioned to restore the church interior and provide appropriate seating for choir and 700-strong congregation.

The design of the pews reflects the geometry of the Abbey Church, curving around the central Portland Stone altar and echoing the lines of Pollen's dramatic concrete 'spoked' roof. Made from American black walnut, with an interlayer of ash, the material creates a large-scale eastwest 'grain' which runs throughout the seating.

Kneelers for the congregation are designed into the back of the pews, which are underpinned by a high-tech metal sub-frame with silicone-coated metal pins in the backrest so that the wood can expand and contract safely. Purpose-built choir stalls also update the traditional church design and unite the choir in a single piece of furniture: high armrests and tip-up misericords provide support for standing monks.

The area in which the choir sits has been reconstructed to unite the monks in their prayer and lowered to bring them closer to the congregation. A brick floor has been installed to improve acoustics.

A new ambo has been added to the sanctuary, along with water stoups at the entrance. Both were crafted in Portland stone to complement the design of Pollen's altar and baptismal font. Lighting and sound systems have been completely renewed and the organ fully refurbished. The ceiling's concrete surface has also been cleaned by dry-ice blasting. Confessional boxes have been replaced by four new solid hardwood reconciliation rooms.

Client: Worth Abbey Construction
Interior and furniture design: Heatherwick Studio
Site area: 160 sq m
Cost: N/A
Completed: September 2011
Contractor: Kier Longley
Lighting Designer: DPA Lighting
Furniture: (Artezan) Swift Horsman
Sound: System Design

Tampa Covenant Church
Florida, USA

A non-denominational church with a strong music and arts culture uniting its 450-plus congregation, Tampa Covenant Church commissioned Alfonso Architects to completely redesign its campus, including parking, lighting and landscaping, refurbishing two single-storey buildings and creating a performance and worship space. A 2,300 sq m freestanding 'sanctuary' now sits between the two existing buildings, and unites them around a new courtyard.

A white-rendered exterior wall and church tower evoke high modernism mixed with the simplicity of a Greek village church. Classical references and religious narrative are combined with modern functionality throughout the project, informing key architectural elements and materials, from the Trinitarian grouping of the three main buildings to the three olive trees planted in the courtyard.

The project's interior and exterior were developed using the classical 'golden ratio' to establish harmonious scale and proportion. The Sanctuary interior is an elegantly multifunctional space that is rich with quiet symbolism. Walls, flooring and seating are in walnut. To the left of the altar is a wall inset with seven fabricated carbon steel candle boxes (for the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest). Fourteen pendant lights form a procession towards the pulpit, evoking the 14 stations of the cross (each glass lantern is also etched with an individual set of rings which, when laid over a melodic score, notate the first few bars of a hymn).

A small chapel to the right is defined and partially screened by a wall of river ledge stone. To the right of the pulpit and cross is an 'open tomb' representing the resurrection - it's actually a structural support column clad in curving Venetian plaster, tinted red to represent the blood of Christ, while the floor is sealed concrete with aisle carpeting.

Natural light floods through the building, which also houses administrative offices and classrooms for the church's dynamic youth and family outreach activities.

Client: Tampa Covenant Church
Architect and interior designer: Alfonso Architects
Completed: Jan 2010
Area: 2,300 sq m
Cost: £1.7m
General contractor: JBD
Construction cost: £1.6m

Tree of Life Chapel
Braga, Portugal

The Tree of Life Chapel nestles at the heart of the St James Seminary in Braga, Portugal. Made of 20 tonnes of unadorned wood, constructed without a single nail or metal fitting, this functional, beautiful enclosure was designed and built by architect brothers António Jorge and André Cerejeira Fontes (both architects, engineers, and PhD students in urban planning) along with Norwegian sculptor Asbjörn Andresen. All three work under the umbrella of Imago, aka Cerejeira Fontes Architects.

The 15th-century Catholic seminary already boasts a cathedrallike chapel with seating for 500, but required a small, intimate space more appropriate for the number of students it currently attracts, and one which could also be a place for quiet retreat and contemplation for monks and visitors.

The overall floor plan and structural solutions reference the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest. The entrance to the chapel is via an open but oblique pathway that obscures the activities of its users but does not exclude any worshipper.

The structure itself, made of American pine, evokes a forest hut or an inverted boat, with a rhythm to the even spacing of the slats that inspires introspection much as the beads on a rosary do. The slats also double up as bookshelf and prop for ritual furniture and accessories - all of which have been designed and made by the Imago team and associates.

The light that pours through the structure from windows in the surrounding building or the asymmetric skylight above adds a magical fourth dimension.

Client: St James Seminary
Architecture/design: Imago Atelier de Arquitectura e Engenharia
Size: 39 sq m, height 5.4m.
Cost: 120,000 euros
Completed: 2010
Consultants: Sculpture: Manuel Rosa
Painter: Ilda David
Organ builder: Pedro Guimarães
Photographer: Santo Eduardo di Miceli
Civil engineer: Joaquim Carvalho.

Martin Luther Church
Hainburg an der Donau, Austria

Serving both the local neighbourhood and the protestant community in this historic Austrian town, Martin Luther Church is at once playful and pragmatic. The extraordinary roof over the main prayer room hints at the bleached curves of a nun's wimple, but is said to be inspired by a neighbouring Romanesque ossuary, as well as a tribute to Le Corbusier's seminal La Tourette monastery.

The latter's deep, circular lightwells clearly inspired the three roof apertures in the stucco ceiling - the correlation with the holy trinity being a 'deliberate coincidence', according to the architects. The shape of the building is derived from that of a large table, with the entire roof construction resting on four steel 'legs'. Light and transparency are woven cleverly throughout the sanctuary, church hall and community spaces.

The sanctuary/prayer room leads to a glass-covered children's corner, with the community hall behind it. This can be closed off or opened out via folding doors which traverse the entire length of the space between the two main chambers. A small slab building flanked by the main spaces encloses sacristy, pastor's office, small kitchen and other ancillary rooms.

The roof elements were constructed at a shipyard on the Baltic sea, using shipbuilding technologies, with 8mm three-dimensionally curved steel plates welded on to a frame. The elegant, 20m-high bell tower was also manufactured by shipbuilding specialists, varying in wall thickness between 8mm and 16mm.

Client: Association Freunde der Evangelischen Kirche in Hainburg an der Donau
Architect: Coop Himmelb(l)au
Site area: 420 sq m
Cost: N/A
Completed: April 2011
Consultant: Altar: Idee & Design, Stainz, Austria
Seating: Braun Lockenhaus, Austria

New North London Synagogue
North Finchley, England

Founded in 1975, the New North London Synagogue (NNLS) had outgrown its existing accommodation within a listed manor house in North Finchley. Part of the Sternberg Centre, comprising several Jewish organisations, architecture practice Van Heyningen and Haward was asked to masterplan and coordinate the development of the entire site, and provide a new synagogue.

The new building is conceived as a garden wall to the side of the manor house, offering a nursery, a teenagers' room, offices and three separate prayer spaces. Within the understated envelope of this brown-brick building, a series of restrained, amply daylit and simple spaces flow. The main prayer room is a large and flexible community hall, clad in light-grey painted wood up to a certain height, and grey rendering above.

It is transformed into a synagogue by a collection of handsome 'sacred objects' designed and made by Opus Magnum, stored behind 4m-high grey-painted wood cupboards that line one wall. An Ark (a cabinet containing sacred scrolls) and Bimah (plinthraised high table) are made from olive wood, as part of a family with the projecting acoustic canopy suspended from the ceiling. Olive wood was chosen for its symbolism as well as the lustrous colour contrasts in its veining, which, combined with the furniture's faceted geometric shapes, provides a warmth and simple intensity to the pieces. When the Ark opens, a rich saffron-colour painted interior frames and highlights the sacred scrolls festooned within it.

The acoustic canopy includes a contemporary light feature which also acts as a Ner Tamid - 'eternal light' - another symbol of Jewish worship. One small cluster of LEDs illuminates a rigid grid of triangular thin rods hanging off the canopy, throwing golden reflections across the smooth wooden surface. Smaller versions of the Ark and Bimah have been made for a more intimate prayer space on the first floor.

Client: New North London Synagogue
Architects: Van Heyningen and Haward
Designer: Opus Magnum
Contract value: (architecture) £3.75m
Completed: 2011
Interior designer/consultant: Francesco Draisci Studio
Olive wood supplier: Capital Crispin Veneer
Lighting engineer: Max Fordham Consulting

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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