The ancient builder and his God

The historical roots of architecture theory and history can be traced back to the 18th century, specifically centred around the Enlightenment Era. During this period, the prevailing ideology revolved around the belief that through reason, humanity could gain a deeper understanding of the universe and its progress.

Greeks stood as luminary exemplars of wisdom.Their intellectual pursuits exemplified an interplay of human craftsmanship with celestial musings, evoking a sense of communion between the architects and the divine entities they sought to bring to life. The Parthenon, an ancient Greek temple dedicated to Athena, has significantly influenced modern design principles in architecture. Its emphasis on symmetry, proportion, and harmony has become fundamental in creating visually pleasing and balanced structures. The dedication to Classical architectural principles, characterized by clarity and simplicity, has left a lasting impact on contemporary design. The Parthenon’s enduring appeal has inspired the use of neoclassical elements in modern buildings, allowing its architectural legacy to continue shaping spaces in the present day.

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A reconstruction of how the Acropolis may have looked in ancient times, including the Parthenon_© Kate Morton

Sacred symbolism and Functionalism

Symbolism plays a significant role in representing the beliefs, ideas, fears, and celebrations of any community or group. It finds its way into the very fabric of our living spaces, shaping what we refer to as architecture(Kaur and Bakde, 2012). Through architecture, the religious consciousness of the people is visually and tangibly manifested, creating a concrete representation of their spiritual and cultural values.

The sacred symbolism and functional significance of religious architecture endure throughout time, becoming witness to historic events and connections, while also acting as catalysts for future occurrences. For instance, The Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain, originally constructed as a Christian Visigothic church, evolved into one of the most renowned Islamic religious buildings in the world. Its architecture showcases a fascinating blend of Islamic, Christian, and Roman influences, representing the inter-territorial history of the region. Over the centuries, this site has witnessed various cultural and religious shifts, making it a testament to the dynamic interplay of diverse civilizations. These places of worship stand as tangible reflections of the societal fabric, their architectural forms imbued with a profound purpose, organizing and giving meaning to their surroundings.

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Hypostyle hall, Great Mosque at Córdoba, Spain_© wsifrancis

The visual impact of religious buildings has expanded, as they increasingly vie for attention among their counterparts. Interestingly, even non-religious constructions, such as museums and theaters, incorporate elements drawn from religious architectural designs.

Religious buildings frequently take deliberate steps to distance themselves from conventional, overtly religious forms. In a quest for unique identities, they purposefully refrain from adopting typical religious connotations, choosing instead to explore innovative architectural expressions that resonate with contemporary sensibilities.

Interaction between religion and architectural design.

Throughout history, the interaction between architecture and religion has been a subject of great interest. Religious buildings hold significant importance due to their expressive nature, enduring presence, and profound influence on the masses. Their unique typology sets them apart from the domestic structures that are influenced by evolving cultural patterns.

Over the years, religious buildings have undergone adaptations to maximize their potential and suit their respective settings. For instance, mosques, with their focal point known as the qibla, marked by the mihrab, a niche facing Mecca, have evolved to accommodate the maximum number of worshippers facing this direction. Similarly, the architectural plans of some religious buildings have grown more alike, driven by the common requirement of optimizing the worship experience.

As time progressed, religious structures faced diverse challenges as they became centers for various activities, demanding innovative architectural solutions. Modern synagogues now bear striking resemblances to churches, owing to shared requirements by eliminating subsidiary chapels, altars, and relics, still retaining some symbolic decoration.

The complexity of later religions have transformed places of worship into multifunctional spaces, where architectural design plays a crucial role in facilitating various activities and rituals. This dynamic relationship between architecture and religion continues to shape the built environment, leaving an enduring impact on societies worldwide.

Features of religious architecture adopted over the years

Over time, religious architecture has embraced adaptation and innovation, while still preserving its essence. While each religious building may possess distinct architectural elements, they all share common characteristics such as grandiosity, spatial hierarchy, intricate designs, iconography, and the incorporation of natural elements. A significant factor contributing to the spiritual ambiance of these structures is the interplay of light and shadows, enhancing the overall experience.

Human circulation within these places of worship is thoughtfully planned to facilitate self-transcendence through activities like prayer, meditation, and chanting. Each religious building bears distinctive sacred marks that set them apart. For instance, temple architecture is characterized by elements like “mandapas,” “shikhara,” “kalasha,” and “garbha griha,” while mosque architecture exhibits features like onion bulbous domes, minarets, arches, darwazas, qibla, and mihrab. Christian places of worship are identifiable by their vaulted roofs, steeples, buttresses, apse, and portals.

However, contemporary religious architecture is experiencing a transformation. Architects are infusing new design expressions, replacing traditional elements with modern interpretations. Linear geometric forms, flat roofs, and simplified facades are now being integrated while retaining the essence of religious faith and spiritual growth. This evolution is blurring the lines between religious and spiritual architecture, creating spaces that foster reflection, wonder, and life clarity.

An example of modern religious architecture is the Church of Light in Japan, designed by Tadao Ando in 1989. Ando skillfully employs the convergence of light and darkness to elevate visitors’ spiritual awareness. The architectural representation of the duality of existence is manifested through the juxtaposition of stark and serene, solid and void within the church.

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Church of the Light / Tadao Ando Architect & Associates_© Naoya Fuji

Religious architecture continues to evolve, marrying tradition with innovation, and providing spaces that cater to both the spiritual and contemporary needs of individuals. Tadao Ando’s masterful design of the Church of Light is a testament to the power of architecture to evoke emotions, provoke introspection, and elevate the spiritual experience. By eschewing excessive ornamentation and embracing simplicity, Ando creates a serene atmosphere that encourages visitors to reflect and find inner peace.

The Church of Light has become an architectural pilgrimage site for those seeking a unique spiritual encounter through design. It has garnered admiration from architects, artists, and spiritual seekers worldwide, solidifying its place as an iconic representation of modern religious architecture.

Religious architecture as a modern manifestation

Religious ideas played a significant role in the discourse of architectural design and development during this time. The presence of religious concepts and beliefs was deeply intertwined with the process of designing and constructing religious structures. The interconnectedness of religious architecture and the expression of religious diversity was evident, reflecting the various beliefs and practices across different cultures.

In contemporary times, architects and designers incorporate innovative approaches while respecting traditional religious values. Modern religious buildings encompass various styles, from traditional designs rooted in historical symbolism to futuristic structures that embrace

technological advancements. These contemporary places of worship prioritize community engagement, inclusivity, and sustainability, aiming to create sacred spaces that cater to the needs of their congregations while respecting the evolving cultural and spiritual landscape of the 21st century.

Reference List 

ArchDaily. (2018). Contemporary Religious Architecture That Rethinks Traditional Spaces for Worship. [online] Available at:

Mutuli, I. (2023). Religious Architecture, Its Characteristics, And Famous Examples. [online] Archute. Available at: [Accessed 21 Jul. 2023].

Kaur, N. and Bakde, V. (2012). Symbolism in Religious Architecture. International Journal of Engineering Research & Technology, [online] 1(10). doi:

Shadieh Mirmobiny (2015). The Great Mosque of Cordoba – Smarthistory. [online] Available at:

The British Museum. (2018). An introduction to the Parthenon and its sculptures. [online] Available at:

Sharma, P. (2022). Religious Architecture in the Modern World. [online] Biltrax Media, A Biltrax Group venture. Available at:


Afnan Ashraf is an artist, architect and an educator. She is the principal architect at TwoPoints ArtLab and a founding member of Coearth Foundation. Afnan excels in developing brand identities, conceptual storylines, and website content. She emphasises on a research based approach fueled through collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.