Lost and Found

IN EUROPE, RELIGION was once societies’ guiding light. Renaissance churches and art would have perhaps not been so grand, concentrated and powerful had it not been for the fact that all those involved were concentrating their efforts obsessively towards the divine.

Times have changed considerably. With postmodernity came the pick ‘n’ mix religious culture that has splintered our once collective energies off into individual pursuits. It’s an attitude that we see mirrored in the architecture of religious spaces, which similarly lack the concentrated vision of Gothic and Renaissance times. So what has the church and its architecture lost during this process of transformation? And what has it found?

To Move Fast and Slow

Speed is a chronic symptom of our everyday lives but religion and faith are slow. Take a place like Canary Wharf in London – the slick and reflective architecture’s form perfectly follows function allowing fast and unrestricted movement of people; the experiential equivalent of optimised workflows and excel spreadsheets. When Urban Office Architecture used this type of tectonic language in their The Church of Holy Spirit it had stark and profound disjunctions with faith. It seems strange that a church would be designed as a vast, ordered and functionally rationalised machine when it should instead be a place to linger and contemplate.

This is not to say church architecture should revive past architectural styles but it is worth considering the slowness of the buildings such as those often found in the historical centers of cities – the types of building that make you stop and appreciate their intricate details and ornament which take longer to decode than glass and steel. This slowness of architectural experience not only allows church architecture to capture the quiet and contemplative nature of faith but also to counteract the violent speeds at which our lives now operate.

A Retreat from Media

From the time of the Gothic cathedral, architecture was societies’ main source of media. People understood the Latin liturgy by comprehending the sculpture, artefacts and ornament on the walls and facades of churches. The very fabric of the architecture told the congregation, amongst other things, about morality and how to live a good life. Today, however, buildings as media or as representations of facets of society and faith have largely disappeared and people gain their ideas of social and political structures not from architectural iconography but from constant streams of news and social media.

So perhaps, in light of this, the vogue for churches to have minimalist and unadorned interiors and facades make them a retreat from the media of the outside world, allowing us to submerge fully into our faith without distraction. This can be felt powerfully in the monumental austerity of Foligno Church By Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas which reaffirms the mass and weight of life that often seems painfully absent in the brevity of our social media exchanges. In John Pawson’s St.Moritz church there is a further intensification of this theme as he keeps the familiar iconography of the church but strips its vaults and ceilings back to their primal forms making the absence of their ornament and media more viscerally felt. Is being adrift from media a new type of sublime and religious experience?

A Threshold from Darkness to Light

During the renaissance era the church was a crowd pleaser. Think of the highly dramatic paintings by Caravaggio with their chiaroscuro effects which are barely rivaled by modern day films. Light and dark has always been important for the church to draw in crowds and, more importantly, keep them along for the existential ride.

But it’s not only about spectacle and drama. In 4th Century Christian churches the contrast between light and dark had profound symbolic meaning. In Santa Costanza in Rome the procession from the dark outer ring of the church to the bright inner ring symbolised an initiate’s acceptance into the church and their perambulation from profane darkness to the sacred Light. Many modern churches seem to have lost this symbolic meaning favoring light as a sculptural tool. But St Henry's Ecumenical Art Chapel by Sanaksenaho Architects retains the ritual of light and successfully reconciles tradition, form, program and experience into a seamless whole. The structure, which is much like the hull of an upturned boat, creates a simple long corridor that metamorphoses from claustrophobic darkness as you enter the chapel to intense light as you approach the altar.

Curves and Infinite Space

Walking into an elliptical or circular church, the building embraces you; you feel it expand and contract as you cross the threshold.  It is a challenge to capture ineffable and theological ideas in architectural space with its well-defined limits and borders but circles, conics and ellipses are all geometries of infinity and the pervasive nature of faith.

The architect and mystic Rudolf Schwarz studied these forms in great detail. He compared these geometries to the all-seeing eye of God but also to the congregation who look up to God. His ideas are still being explored today and Niall McLaughlin made reference to Schwarz’s ideas when developing his approach for the elliptical Bishop Edward King Chapel in Oxford.  

The importance of these forms is not just symbolic. In contrast to a rectilinear space, where each wall is well defined and has a shadow slightly different to the last, the play of light is more ambiguous across a curved or parabolic surface. Light reflects endlessly in different directions across its surface, immaterialising its own geometry and the confines of the church, opening it up to the environment and, to the ineffable. All of these traits can be seen in the Don Bosco Church in Slovenia along with light canons that are infinite too. As the light floods in through these apertures we don’t see the threshold between interior and exterior, just an endless cone of space.

The Future of Faith

Religion began to give answers about the unknown and to give hope in times of uncertainty. Our current reality is not too dissimilar; it is a time of fake news, the chaos of constantly shape shifting politics and the paranoia of terror attacks. This may give the church a renewed importance and its architecture will be once again enriched by some kind of powerful collective belief. Perhaps it will begin to matter less that modern science has made religion into a fiction when reality is being heavily fictionalised anyway. 

—Images courtesy of the architects: Don Bosco Church, DANS Architects; Bishop Edward King Chapel, Niall McLaughlin Architects (photographs © Niall McLaughlin); Foligno Church, Studio Fuksas (photographs © Moreno Maggi); St Moritz Church, John Pawson (photographs © Gilbert McCarragher); St Henry's Ecumenical Art Chapel, Sanaksenaho Architects.