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New Spiritual Architecture
By Phyllis Richardson
Abbeville PressCopyright © 2004 Phyllis Richardson
All rights reserved.
’I wanted to create a place of silence, of prayer, of peace and of internal joy.’
Le Corbusier on the chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut
Architecture is asked to deliver many things to many people &ndash shelter, comfort and perhaps beauty, expanding to more specialized programmatic or formalistic requirements. The demands of religious structures may include all of these, but it is the extra thing that they must provide or at least facilitate spirituality &ndsah; that sets them apart from secular buildings. This is a quality that contributes greatly to their cultural value since they are meant to inspire something beyond the physical satisfactions of space and, in many cases, say something about the community that they serve. Their inherent transcendent aspect is what makes them more curious to lay people and what has made them a proving ground for talent through the ages. However, what this book seeks to explore is not the inherent differentness’ of religious buildings, though that is part of their appeal, but the way in which these buildings become an alembic for ideas, for innovation: though some would dismiss modern religious buildings as unlikely harbingers of cutting-edge design, the projects included here will show that they are just that.
The reasons for the decision to include buildings from different religions and to group them thematically, rather than according to denomination, were the same that drove the decision to make the book in the first place: the buildings have inherent value as significant works of architecture with or without their religious affiliations. The focus in these pages is on how contemporary practice and formal invention have been brought to bear on sacred buildings, and on how these elements make technological, formal, environmental and material contributions to the art of building.
This is not a new phenomenon, merely a continuation of a practice that has been going on for centuries the patronage of new architecture by religious bodies. St Peter’s in Rome was groundbreaking in its day not only for its size and succession of lead architects, but for its modified Greek-cross plan, its chamfered piers creating wider spaces, its sumptuous decoration helping to achieve the aim of Pope Julius II to outshine the ancient monuments of Rome. Creating the largest dome since the construction of the Pantheon also helped to seal this triumph. It deviated from Leon Battista Alberti’s guidelines for a religious building, which he laid down in his fifteenth-century treatise on architecture, the most prevalent being the adherence to pure form (a circle or a shape derived from a circle, such as a square, hexagon, etc.) and total harmony. However, then, as now, there were people willing to see beyond what was expected to what was possible.
Following is a brief and very general overview of the traditional requirements of the kinds of religious buildings included in the book. This is not a definitive study, but it helps to give an idea of what the architects are working with and how they are departed from or adhered to tradition. The forms of synagogue and mosque have been much less prescribed than their Christian counterparts. However, both require certain elements which share some similarities with those in Christian churches. A synagogue should have a bimah, a table on a raised platform from which the Torah is read. The ark is another important feature, as it and the Torah scrolls which are kept inside it are considered the holiest features in the synagogue’. Though it was once meant to be a portable furnishing, the ark is now largely a significant fixed element often elaborately decorated that, along with the bimah, helps focus the prayer space of the synagogue. The ark, bimah and sometimes the pulpit can be placed in an apse-like space in the eastern side of the room, but the more traditional, Orthodox method is to keep them toward the centre. Like mosques, synagogues usually have space for worshippers to wash before attending prayers. Traditionally, too, men and women are seated separately, with women either on another level or behind a curtain, though in a Reformed movement there is no such separation.
The mosque accommodates prayers that could as easily be said out of doors, and often are. Prayer rugs are important and laid out in courtyard spaces and then taken up again when prayers are finished. Muslims pray facing Mecca, and the orientation of a mosque or indoor prayer space is denoted by the location of the qibla wall which contains the mihrab, a niche of elaborate decoration, pointing to the exact location of the holy shrine, with the minbar, or pulpit, set nearby. Architects in far-flung parts of the world will spend a great deal of time and effort ensuring that the orientation is exactly right. Michael Collins Architects consulted several experts, including an airline pilot, to help calculate and then confirm the direction of Mecca for their Islamic Cultural Centre in Dublin. In their gridded layout, all of the rooms face the qibla so that people can orient themselves for prayer within any space. Most Islamic prayer facilities include a space for ablutions, which, at least in projects here, are not mere public washrooms, but are designed to signal the transition to the prayer space.
Inside, the main prayer space in a mosque usually has room for rows of men to face the qibla wall shoulder-to-shoulder in a hypostyle hall articulated with a series of columns and horseshoe arches, which are used to great rhythmic effect in some of the most celebrated Islamic buildings, such as the Alhambra in Granada. Men and women pray separately, and if a mosque accommodates women they usually sit in a mezzanine space overlooking the main prayer space and are separated by carved wooden screens. Though there are no strict rules governing the look or shape of a mosque, many traditionalists favor the use of at least one dome over the main prayer space, and minarets to distinguish the building. Furthermore, the use of geometric patterning, elaborate carving and other traditional craftwork has come to signify the mosque building, which can be a simple enclosed prayer space or a complex masjid-i jami. The masjid-i jami, or congregational mosque, often includes facilities such as classrooms, a library, residential accommodation and other community services.
It goes without saying that a nondenominational space has no traditional requirements except for that necessary sense of sanctuary. However, spaces that are meant to accommodate more than one faith (as opposed to no particular faith) must present themselves as flexible at the very least, and welcoming to all in the ideal scenario. One project in the book contains elements for four separate faiths (see p.114), while another can be easily transformed from one congregation to another (see p.74), and a third offers contemplation space for all (see p.118).
The majority of the projects in this book are devoted to Christian worship, a consequence of the availability and proliferation of new projects. To the Western reader, the form will be very familiar. And, even if Alberti had lost reigning influence by the time Rome’s best minds were arguing over the form of St Peter’s, the basic layout of the Christian church, with its origins in the Latin basilica, has remained largely intact a cruciform shape with seating in the nave, altar above the transepts, and whole structure facing east. There have of course been many other elements and variations through the centuries, and the form continues to inspire alternatives as in a number of projects here.
Though there are projects from 18 countries there are some points of geographic concentration that were not deliberate, but arose from the proliferation of such buildings in those areas. Most of the churches in the book are located in western Europe or the USA. Three of the four synagogues included in these chapters are located in Germany, which again is a consequence of the abundance of building work that has been taking place. In post-war, post-reunification Germany, many Jewish and Christian communities are building (and rebuilding) houses of worship, many destroyed in the Holocaust and the aftermath of the Second World War. Such weighty precedents have given some architects a deep motivation to produce buildings that are somehow both distinctive and sobering, forward-looking and mindful of the past.
For any study of innovation in religious buildings it is helpful to look at some hallmark developments. As in the past (but without the vast coffers of patronage of previous centuries) well-known modern architects have been solicited to produce works for religious communities, and those buildings continue to influence projects both secular and divine. Le Corbusier’s chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Ronchamp, has become a modern icon. Strangely enough, as it was designed as a piece of one-off craftsmanship and is distinct departure from the rational forms with which the architect is generally associated, its use of sprayed-on concrete and organic shapes brought the Catholic Church firmly into the world of modern architecture. (Perhaps it is a telling sign of a renewed reverence for both the architect and spiritual buildings that Corbusier’s Saint-Pierre Church in Firminy, France, is now due for completion, 30 years after it was abandoned, unfinished.) Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Beth Shalom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (largely influenced by his designs for a steel cathedral which was sadly never build), and his various other churches and chapels, helped bring his particular style of craftsmanship married with modular design to the wider public. Philip Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral in California, recently enhanced by a partner building designed by Richard Meier, remains one of the great achievements of twentieth-century architecture. (Johnson’s Cathedral of Hope for Dallas, Texas, was completed in 2004). The sweeping grace of Oscar Niemeyer’s cathedral for Brasilia, and his other buildings for the capital, still reign as some of the twentieth century’s most forward-looking works of architecture.
Twentieth-century landmarks in mosque design can be seen in the work of Babr Hameed, whose Masjid-i Tooba in Karachi, built in 1969, is a Modernist statement of white concrete shells and sculptural arches, not so far removed from Niemeyer’s futuristic forms. Hassan Fathy may be the mosque architect most known to Westerners, having achieved a reputation for his designs that integrate mosques within the larger context of a planned community, as in New Gourna, Egypt, and the Dar al-Islam community of Abiquiu, New Mexico. Once a student of Hassan Fathy, Abdel Wahed El-Wakil has moved on to become one of the foremost architects of mosque buildings in the Middle East. Though he has never set out to directly challenge traditional precedent, in the words of James Steele, Wahid’s eclecticism continues to redefine traditional architectural perceptions.’ The KingSaud Mosque (1989), modelled on the fourteenth-century Sultan Hasan Mosque in Cairo, demonstrates his ability to translate history with a modern sense of subtlety. More adventurous is Kenzo Tang’s Al-Khairia complex and mosque in Riyadh, which is an unusual example of an architect imposing largely non-Islamic forms, as the design reduces the geometric patterning to essential shapes expressed in separate built elements.
Excerpted from New Spiritual Architecture by Phyllis Richardson. Copyright © 2004 Phyllis Richardson. Excerpted by permission of Abbeville Press.
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