Designing for places of worship: An architect's guide

Updated 23rd December 2016
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Designing for places of worship: An architect's guide
Written by By Jonathan Glancey, for CNN
Designed for 35,000 people, the prayer hall of the stridently modern, German-designed, Chinese-built, Djamma El Djazair mosque overlooks the Bay of Algiers.
Here, the faithful will be called to prayer from the world's tallest minaret. A project dear to Algeria's long serving president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, this controversial €1.2 billion ($1.25 billion) building will be Africa's biggest mosque, and is due to open in 2017.

From opulence to modesty

Africa's, and possibly the world's, biggest Roman Catholic church is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, a post-modern replica of St Peter's, Rome in Yamoussoukro, Cote d'Ivoire.
Consecrated in 1990, this pet project of the late president Félix Houphouët-Boigny doubled the poverty-stricken country's national debt, yet few people of any religion kneel under its matronly dome today.
Clearly, there are religious communities which revel in scale and numbers, and while such vast buildings will continue to be built in one form or another, the most moving and attractive new places of worship are notably modest.
In an increasingly restless world with all too many distractions, the appeal of clear, restful and elemental spaces are easily understood.

The essence of religious space

Perhaps the most soulful modern place of Islamic worship is the Sancaklar Mosque (pictured above) designed by Emre Arolat Architects at Büyükçekmece, a suburb of Istanbul.
Completed in 2012, the mosque is built of rough stone and concrete and, set in a hollow, reached by stepping-stones across a pool. Here, there are no conventional Islamic architectural symbols and, as the architects say, "no worldly references."
The form of this poetic building is focused, they say, "solely on the essence of religious space." Even the mihrab seems missing, its place taken by a beam of light shining through a fissure in a bare concrete wall. This is Islam, architecturally interpreted, as a religion of peace.
Much the same quality can be found in Cardedeu, a recently consecrated Roman Catholic mountain chapel (pictured below) overlooking, and partly cantilevered over, Lake Coatepeque in tropical El Salvador.
This elemental concrete building, by EMC Arquitectura, is open on two sides, framing soul-stirring views while keeping congregations cool. A deceptively simple design, it eschews conventional religious imagery, cross aside, and, like the Sancaklar Mosque, connects those who come here to spirituality and nature.
It is this connection to nature that imbues these beautifully resolved buildings with a meditative stillness and grace that elevates and even transcends the creeds they are designed to serve.

A new generation of religious buildings

In England, Niall McLaughlin's design for the Bishop Edward King Chapel at Ripon Theological College at Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire is a new religious building, for the Church of England embracing nature and religion, too.
But, this exquisite limestone and timber chapel set among encircling beech trees marries the essence of age-old English Christian architecture to uplifting contemporary design.
"The project encapsulates two architectural images", explains McLaughlin. "The first is a gentle hollow in the ground as a meeting place for the community. The second is a delicate ship-like timber structure that rises into the treetops to gather the light from the leaves.
The first idea speaks of ground, of meeting in the still center. The second idea suggests an uplifting buoyancy, rising towards the light. The way in which these two opposite forces work off each other is what gives the building its particular character."
While big, eye-catching, lavish and richly symbolic places of worship will continue to attract ambitious politicians, clerics and tourist agencies, the faithful of all creeds, as well as none, are perhaps best served by this quietly exciting new generation of churches, mosques, temples and chapels where architecture discovers that still point in a fast spinning world offering true solace and peace.