How modernist architecture finds its best expression in religious buildings

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How modernist architecture finds its best expression in religious buildings
Classically modernist, Saint-Pierre church, designed by Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier
How modernist architecture finds its best expression in religious buildings
Classically modernist, Saint-Pierre church, designed by Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier

“I do not know the miracle of faith,” modernist architect Le Corbusier confessed in 1961, “but I often experience that of ineffable space, which is the highest level of artistic emotion.”

Beautifully photographed, and elegantly elucidated by James Pallister, Sacred Spaces: Contemporary Religious Architecture is a field report from the cult of Corbusier. The 30 new religious buildings in this intriguing book represent every major faith, and the locales range from the forests of China to the fields of Germany, the suburbs of Bangladesh to the shores of San Francisco. Almost all of the designs use that most ineffable of space-making materials: concrete. The first surprise is that some of the results are beautiful. The second is that even the ugly designs are interesting.

As Christianity withers in Europe, old churches are converted into apartments and community centres, and new churches seem determined to accommodate secular habits. The Dutch Reformed Church at Rijsenhout replaces a church erased by the expansion of Schiphol airport. It looks like an airport outbuilding: a pile of plain, windowless cubes, with departure lounge seats under strip lighting inside. The funeral chapel at Ingelheim, an otherwise blameless village on the Rhine, resembles an IKEA showroom. The benches in its meditation garden are backless concrete blocks, as if the architects take the mourners for vandals. These are designs of despair. []

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