Arthur Erickson said, “Space has always been the spiritual dimension of architecture. It is not the physical statement of the structure so much as what it contains that moves us.” In a way, every form of architecture has an essence, a soul, of something beyond the physical form that we can see and touch.
When it comes to spiritual architecture, man’s constant seeking of the metaphysical world has resulted in various kinds of architectural expressions across different cultures, religions, and geographies. These expressions hold symbolic meaning in every aspect—from the geometry of how the spaces are planned to the crafting of the minutest detail. Spiritual architecture has existed since time immemorial when man started worshipping nature.
From a simple shrine under a tree to large complex structures reaching out to the heavens, we have seen a slow but noticeable transition in the design of sacred spaces. So, here are 15 such spiritual projects for you to ponder upon:
1. Matri Mandir, Auroville, India
Matri Mandir is a temple that represents the heart of the Auroville community in India. It is open to people from all walks of life, regardless of their faith. The temple was designed by the French Architect Roger Anger who translated The Mother’s vision through the design of this temple.
With 1415 golden discs covering its exterior façade, the structure is symbolic of a cosmic egg. The breath-taking circular meditation chamber, accessed through a pair of ramps, has white-marble-clad walls, white carpeted floors, and twelve white columns supporting it. A single ray of light that falls onto a crystal globe at the center of the chamber via a heliostat, gives the room almost a magical appearance.
Beneath the spherical structure is an amphitheatre with natural lighting from all sides. The spiritual project was completed in 2008.
2. Cambridge Mosque, Cambridge, England
The Cambridge mosque aspires to evoke a feeling of timelessness and richness from the past while implementing the latest green technologies. Designed by Marks Barfield Architects, the design is an amalgamation of Islamic architectural features and British architectural features. The timber columns made from curved and laminated sustainably sourced spruce wood represent ‘trees’ that support the roof.
The structure evolved from the English Gothic fan vaulting style. Skylights create a pool of natural light into the prayer hall which is also supported by low-energy LED bulbs powered by photovoltaic cells. The Cambridge mosque incorporates elements of nature and gives a serene experience to the user.
The Mosque was opened to the public in 2019 as a spiritual and cultural community centre not only for Muslims but also for all other communities.
3. San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice
Located in the picturesque landscape of the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, this chapel was one of the ten temporary chapels built as a part of the Venice Architecture Biennale. Conceptualized as three symbolic crosses woven by a light membrane, the design evolved into a tensegrity structure with an attached latticework made of thin timber slats.
The lightness of the structure blends with the surrounding forested area. The filtered light through the lattice membrane gives an ethereal experiential quality. The fragrance of the jasmine vines which were planted around the structure added to the heavenly and calming experience as one walks through the chapel.
The project was designed by Foster + Partners and built by the Italian furniture company Tecno. The pavilion was opened to the public from 26 May 2018 to 25 November 2018.
4. Temple in Stone and Light, Rajasthan, India
Designed by SpaceMatters, the Temple of Stone and Light in Barmer, Rajasthan is a contemporary interpretation of a Shiva Temple. The solidity and strength of stone as a building material are deeply etched in our minds when we think about traditional Indian temples. While enkindling the same soulful essence, the material has been overtly used without any ornamentation.
Interlocking stone joinery was used to re-envision the sacred geometry of the Shikhar and local craftsmen were employed for its fabrication. Light enters through the gaps between the interlocks during the day and the interior lighting spills out at night. The bold symmetry of its form and the dazzling play of light gives the user an indelible experience.
Completed in 2016, this spiritual project is naturally ventilated, LED-lit, and is entirely solar passive.
5. Water-Moon Monastery, Taiwan
“It is a Flower in Space, Moon in Water. Let’s name it the Water-Moon Monastery”, said Master Sheng Yen, the founder of the Monastery and Dharma Drum Buddhist Group in Taiwan. Completed in 2012, Architect Kris Yao taps into the tranquility of the natural context, making use of the Datun Mountains which becomes a backdrop for the monastery located on the Guandu plains, near the Keelung River.
Using exposed concrete and the slightest hints of color on the exterior façade, the design follows a minimalistic approach, reflecting the principles of Zen Buddhism. The 80-meter-long lotus pond mirrors the large colonnades giving a visual effect of a floating building, especially due to the use of glass in the lower façade.
6. Lotus Temple
Being the most visited religious building in the world, this Baha’i house of worship, located in Nehru Place in South Delhi, is open to people from all religions and belief systems. The sacred form of the lotus flower acts as a symbol of unity, simplicity, freshness, and peace.
Designed by Fariborz Sahba, the Lotus Temple brings together elements of light and water through its design. There are three layers of 9 petals each, which are cast in concrete and cladded with white marble, according to the fractal geometry patterns of the petals. The double-layered dome is supported by 9 arches on a raised podium finished in local red sandstone. The surrounding nine water bodies help in passive cooling and also give a visual illusion of a floating lotus.
The 2200-seating capacity hall is lit by a series of skylights like how light passes through the translucent petals of a flower, and is reflected by the white marble flooring. The spiritual project was completed in 1986.
7. Khmeresque, Battambang, Cambodia
Khmeresque, located in Battambang, is an example of the magic that can occur when a religious building takes inspiration from local traditions. Designed by Steyn Studio in 2012, the concept behind the design is that a religious architectural style evolves from the culture, heritage, and philosophies of a place rather than being a proclamatory structure.
Won Buddhism, based on Mahayana Buddhism, is linked to the Khmer culture and has a young 100 years of history with little development of elaborate architectural styles or symbols. A religious space, in a simple sense, is a place that allows the gathering of people, which means it needs shading from a large enough roof, especially in a tropical climate.
Beyond this, the building takes a minimal approach to the vertical elements since the focus was on creating a connection between the outdoors and the indoors, as an extension of the existing landscape. Local materials were used so that the people feel more familiar with the building.
8. Bosjes Chapel, South Africa
Completed in 2016, the form of this chapel is derived from the surrounding mountains itself, with the roof creating a language of ups and downs. The resulting roof curvatures bring forward a new interpretation of traditional Cape Dutch ‘Holbol’ gables.
Designed by Coetzee Steyn, this chapel is unique in the sense that it looks outward in terms of the design language used, whereas most churches and chapels look inward for spiritual reflection. By looking outward to nature, this spiritual project helps the user to be aware of God’s creation and visually ties the chapel with the valley. The form is more or less horizontal, as the thin concrete-shell-roof itself becomes the walls or columns.
Similar to the Missionary churches, the plan is simple and utilitarian with tranquil white interiors. Thus, it achieves a certain lightness, giving a floating sensation especially in combination with the strategically placed water body.
9. The Church of the Light, Ibaraki, Japan
As the name suggests, Tadao Ando, the master Japanese architect, designs spaces using light. Completed in 1989, his super-minimalistic approach to Church design comes from a careful balance between void and solid and between light and darkness. In terms of materials also, the architect follows the same stark approach by using a single material – concrete. This amplifies the duality between solid and void and the absence of any ornament gives the user a sense of clarity and focus on one’s inner path.
The ultra-smooth surface of the single material gives out a brilliant glow of reflected light. The placement of the cross on the east façade allows for the early morning light to filter through, resulting in a surreal experience, changing the space with the changing sun path.
10. Temple of Steps, Nandyala, India
A weave of landscape and architecture, Sameep Padora’s design, the Temple of Steps, follows a simple and harmonical concept evolving from traditional step-wells. Historically, some temples were also environmental agents for water conservation apart from being spaces for religious worship.
Being situated in Nandyal, Andhra Pradesh, locally available black limestone slabs were used for the temple’s stepped design from the water pushkarini (water tank) to the shikhara (temple tower) following an almost continual style using the corbel units. There are two shrines in the complex, the larger one containing the Balaji shrine and the smaller one containing the Varahaswamy shrine.
The temple priests were involved in the planning for the accurate positioning of the shrines according to tradition. “The planning of our temple carries forward the historic precedent of temple plans which addresses the two shrines and the bathing pond for the deity at the entry,” said Sameep Padora. This project was completed in 2019.
11. Sancaklar Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Located in a suburban neighborhood called Buyukçekmece near Istanbul, the architectural design of the Sancaklar Mosque merges with the prairie landscape that surrounds it. Only a large shading overhang is visible from a distance as one approaches the mosque through stone steps following the natural downward slope. There are high walls clearly distinguishing the outer world from the peaceful public park within the mosque compound.
This spiritual project was completed in 2012. This design challenges the conventional way in which mosques are designed and tries to capture the spiritual essence differently. A stark dual relationship is observed between the manmade and natural through the grey of the stone and concrete, and the green vegetation.
The building, accessed from beneath the overhanging canopy, leads you to a cave-like interior space that is dramatically simple, aiding your mind and soul to become one with God.
12. Cardboard Cathedral, New Zealand
The Cardboard Cathedral, designed by Shigeru Ban, was built as a temporary cathedral in 2012 after the 100-year-old Anglican Cathedral in New Zealand was severely damaged by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in 2011. The earthquake-resistant structural marvel is made out of a simple A-frame structure made using 96 cardboard tubes coated with waterproof polyurethane and flame retardants. Eight shipping containers were used for stability on the sides and the roof is made of a semi-transparent polycarbonate.
The interior gives a modern light appearance with the magnificent colourful glass windows engraved with images from the original cathedral’s façade. “The strength of the building has nothing to do with the strength of the material. Even concrete buildings can be destroyed by earthquakes very easily, but paper buildings cannot,” said the architect.
13. Kärsämäki Shingle Church, Finland
Built in 2004, the Kärsämäki Church is a modern twist to traditional craftsmanship. The design expresses a natural sense of handcrafted materiality with a light-wood-finished ‘core’ and a black shingle-clad “cloak”. The space between the core and the cloak becomes the vestibule, vestry, and storeroom.
One enters through a dimly lit space which leads to a place within the core that is warm, naturally lit from a lantern skylight, offering a serene and sacred space for worship. This inner space is lit by movable, candle-lit glass lanterns in the evening. The design was built based on a student competition entry at the University of Oulu by Anssi Lassila called “Cantata” after the original 1765-built church of Kärsämäki parish was demolished in 1841.
14. Chandgaon Mosque, Bangladesh
Located on the suburban periphery of the port of Chittagong in Bangladesh, this mosque aims to serve as a spiritual space for worship as well as a gathering place for the community. Completed in 2007, the design is monolithic and minimalistic and expresses a contemporary interpretation of a traditional mosque.
The first court is formed by heavy masonry walls with low and wide fenestrations and an eye-like opening on the roof, connecting the space to the surrounding landscape as well the sky above. The second space contains the mihrab wall which is naturally lit by an awe-inspiring cut dome.
This spiritual project brings in light and ventilation during the day and allows the interior light to shine outwards during the night.
15. Temple for the God of Wealth, Anhui, China
Located at the foot of the Dabie Mountains in east China’s Anhui Province, this temple was proposed by the architect, going beyond the initial brief of creating a town square cum parking lot. A small 200-year-old God of Wealth temple which was a spiritual center of local villagers was discovered. The villagers believed that the temple brought them luck and wealth.
The architect convinced the client to rebuild this temple in a new site 10 meters away, backed by mountains on three sides, to continue the traditional beliefs. Completed in 2018, the temple was designed like a pavilion with three open sides and a single porous hollow brick wall for the deity. This wall became a new kind of blessing facility by inserting letters with spiritual words through the voids.
The square-shaped skylight accentuated the locally made woven bamboo mats textured on the concrete structure. Water is a symbol of wealth in the local people’s culture and hence “rain chains” were used as a special water draining system as a metaphor for “the God of Wealth”.
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