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‘Religious buildings are beginning to take on recognisable 21st-century typologies’

An ambitious new study of contemporary religious architecture touches upon a broad range of hypotheses, but falls short of an in-depth analysis

This latest contribution to the literature on contemporary religious architecture comes approximately 10 years after its most recent precursors (most similar is Phyllis Richardson’s New Sacred Architecture) and as such is a welcome re-appraisal. Given the relatively slow pace at which non-commercial building projects generally proceed, the quality, enterprise and geographical span is impressive with particularly memorable designs coming from less predictable parts of the world such as South Korea and Mexico. James Pallister has fastidiously gathered into one monograph a diversity of buildings which represent the increasingly ‘brave new world’ of religious architecture, projects which, in the main, call upon the visual language of much secular architecture. In many instances this serves the purpose well: a truth to materials engenders the right kind of groundedness; plays of light and shade, height and mass, symbolism and abstraction make environments that are clearly contemplative and edifying if not, indeed, uplifting.

That said, there also emerges a sense that religious buildings are beginning to take on recognisable 21st-century typologies: the masculine urban intervention which often impresses on first impressions but thereafter feels conventional and somewhat mundane; the rural retreat that delights in a play of materials and traditional tropes; the over-anguished and overly angular formations that try too hard to compete with an already iconic landscape; and (possibly my least favourite) the white Barbapapa-esque organics that seem to confuse holiness or purity with elegance and expenditure.

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Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch

This book lacked more demanding assessments of these buildings which might have added conviction to the suggestion they do indeed constitute ‘Sacred Spaces’. How do they really compare with an art gallery, Calvin Klein store, or new university building? And when do the conveniences of Minimalism actually give something to the schema of a religious building rather than simply putting the 21st-century individual at aesthetic ease? Phaidon have not given the space needed to tackle these questions here and perhaps that is a relief to many.

Pallister groups the buildings into sections on ‘Congregation’, ‘Clarity’, ‘Mass’, ‘Reflection’ and ‘Revelation’ (the religious punning on these architectural terms is undoubtedly deliberate), each of which is eloquently introduced with a two-page spread summarising their shared conceptual or physical programme. Although this could probably have been done with any number of catch-all headings, the division into sections focuses us on a primary driver in the realisation of a project. For example, in ‘Congregation’ the book is propelled into the immediate concerns of the people of Christchurch, New Zealand, where Shigeru Ban’s post-earthquake Cardboard Cathedral now stands (and is likely to for another 50 years); in ‘Clarity’ the South Korean Church of Water and Light is literally immersed in both; ‘Mass’ (not the Roman Catholic type) showcases extraordinary forms like the vast boat-shaped Beth Shalom Synagogue in San Francisco against the fragility of Peter Zumthor’s Brother Klaus Field Chapel whose charred interior dramatically graces the book’s cover; ‘Reflection’ points to the kinds of buildings where we encounter our own mortality – funerary buildings and cemeteries as well as monastic spaces; and ‘Revelation’ quite aptly brings us to places of pilgrimage, where buildings mark out the transience of religious experience as much as its longevity.

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Beth Shalom Synagogue in San Francisco by Stanley Saitowitz Natoma Architects

While these introductions afford Pallister the opportunity to expand into larger hypotheses (eg, on the nature of Modernism’s malleability and thus its regional customisation (p60) or to contract and concentrate on a particular faith’s theology of notions such as ‘Revelation’, I was frustrated that they too quickly lapsed into a preamble to (and sometimes a repetition of) the descriptions of the projects which occur at the start of each project’s pages. The beginnings of a deeper analysis – how they function phenomenologically, liturgically, contextually – were tantalisingly cut short each time. While Pallister and his publishers have been assiduous in attempting to straddle a diverse readership, it seems wrong-footed to have relied so heavily on descriptive text, when the images amply convey the visceral accomplishment of the buildings in question.

Admittedly, I am probably hankering for a different kind of book about religious architecture, one in which the author(s) is able to immerse themselves in the communities that use the spaces after the photographer has left; one that asks the difficult questions of whether the building actually achieves sacredness in all the complexity that that term holds. It would be messier, there would be signs Blu-tacked to the walls, flower arrangements and books, visual clutter that belies the social, emotional and theological clutter of human presence, but good religious buildings can withstand all of that and we must identify the ways in which they do.

As Pallister (along with every other commentator in this field) has pointed out, architects are generally only too happy to design a religious building as an ultimate challenge in handling form and function, but with that must come a rigorous critique of the end results, otherwise we will end up in a cul-de-sac of grand intentions and lost opportunities.

Sacred Spaces: Contemporary Religious Architecture

Author: James Pallister

Publisher: Phaidon

Price: £39.95

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