Is Religious Architecture Still Relevant?

Some of the greatest architectural works throughout history have been the result of religion, driven by the need to construct spaces where humanity could be one step closer to a higher power. With more people choosing a secular lifestyle than ever before, are the effects that these buildings convey—timelessness, awe, silence, and devotion, what Louis Kahn called the “immeasurable” and Le Corbusier called the “ineffable”—no longer relevant?

With the Vatican’s proposal for the 2018 Venice Biennale, described as “a sort of pilgrimage that is not only religious but also secular,” it is clear that the role of "religious" spaces is changing from the iconography of organized religion to ambiguous spaces that reflect the idea of "spirituality" as a whole.

So what does this mean? Is there still a key role for spirituality in architecture? Is it possible to create spaces for those of different faiths and those without faith at all? And what makes a space "spiritual" in the first place?

It is interesting to note that there is no fundamental or essential form of worship spaces in most major religions. Although we think of minarets for Islam and Gothic cathedrals for Catholicism, throughout history many sacred spaces were easily switched from one religion to another depending on those in power. For example, the Pantheon was stripped of its sculptures of Pagan gods and replaced with Christian imagery while the architecture itself stayed the same and played the same role.

Buildings erected on Biblical sites have changed from churches to mosques to synagogues. Built sacred spaces, no matter the religion, often share very similar typologies, with the use of light and scale to evoke a sense of awe and piety.

The Pantheon. Image© Flickr user Jun licensed under CC BY SA-2.0

However, historical architecture has very rarely built spaces with the purpose to house multiple religions. An exception is the Golden Temple in Amritsar (1577), where entrances on all four sides represent the temple's willingness to open its doors for people from all walks of life and religions. 

But the historic desire to clearly separate the architecture of different faiths is changing, with the Temple of All Religions in Russia (1992) tackling the architectural problem by juxtaposing Greek Orthodox domes with Russian minarets and ornamental flourishes that would be at home in a Jewish synagogue or Islamic mosque. And currently being built in Berlin is the House of One (2015), where a church, synagogue, and mosque will exist under the same roof.

Temple of All Religions, Russia. Image© Flickr user Maarten licensed under CC BY 2.0

Another interesting way this issue has been explored is through "multifaith" rooms that exist in airports, shopping centers, hospitals, prisons, schools, and government buildings. These multifaith rooms, often invisible if one does not look for them, are typically simply an empty, white-walled room tucked in somewhere without any input by architects, where people of different faiths can come in to worship while waiting for a plane or a discharged patient. 

Andrew Crompton, Head of the School of Architecture at the University of Liverpool, explores the phenomenon of multifaith spaces and describes them as “mundane spaces without an aura,” explaining that “in order not to be meaningful in an inappropriate way, they use banal materials, avoid order and regularity, and are the architectural equivalent of ambient noise.” [1] Rather than attempting to promote unity through inclusion, using the Temple of All Religions' approach of a strange eclectic mix of everything, these multifaith rooms attempt to promote unity by stripping away anything that evokes the sacred, leaving us with nothing.

Multifaith Prayer Room, Hong Kong International Airport. Image© Wikimedia Commons user Chongkian licensed under CC BY SA-3.0

But are "spiritual" or "multifaith" spaces even relevant in a time where rates of religiosity are declining rapidly? In fact, they may be more important than ever. Julio Bermudez’s collection of essays, Transcending Architecture: Contemporary Views on Sacred Space describes how “our contemporary civilization has exacerbated the feelings of existential emptiness and meaninglessness” and that the need for "spiritual" or "transcendent" space could not be more relevant. [2] With consumerism and hyper-connectivity, where we are continually besieged by constant images, noise, and information, the need for spaces to reflect, to meditate and to feel silence is crucial. 

In this way, spirituality in architecture can be completely disconnected from organized religion and take on a new role—with architecture that creates a sense of wonder, a space for reflection, and a glimpse into clarity.

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