Reader Review: Evolving Church Architecture

Monday 17 Dec 2012

The Profanity of Solace by Amit Khanna of Amit Khanna Design Associates

As you enter the portal, a tiny gesture of deference is required. You may be asked to remove your shoes or perhaps there might be a discrete sign asking you to switch off your cellphone. You may even be asked to wash your hands. This moment, shared with your companions, is usually unspoken. As you step in, you could be met with soaring music, or a cacophony of bells, but mostly with quiet meditative silence. As the gaze wanders around the richly adorned interior, you pause and reflect. Somewhere in the corner of your mind, you may have found strength, peace or inspiration. You have been fooled.

The act of making buildings is normally quite straightforward. A requirement for sheltered space must be met within the confines of the area available, the budget in hand and the manpower at disposal. Some plans are drawn up, some standards are consulted and contracts are awarded. In due time, the finished product is ready to be occupied and hopefully it should meet the functional requirements of the people who paid for it. However, the simplest and most naïve building has a characteristic that is normally not considered as part of the scope of work, and that is the manner in which it is perceived. Not only by those who use it, but also by people who simply view it from outside and occasionally visit the interior. Except in one very special type of building, where this characteristic is at the heart of the requirements. The Sacred Space.

The act of worship depends primarily on faith, but from the very beginning of human settlement and religious ritual, those in charge of organizing communities have known that the perception matters. The perception of the building that contains the object or iconography to be worshipped is as important to the experience as the object contained within. The earliest temples may have been simple shrines, but with time they have grown to be massive structures, intended to dwarf the individual and provide a fitting space for the content they embody. Going far beyond the simple requirements of congregation, access and keeping the weather out, these buildings are the strongest advertisement for the abstract idea within. Their self-similarity makes the idea recognizable at a distance and gives it potential to be transported to far reaches without necessarily having to contain a revered object - only the iconography is required. It is a system that all ATM users are familiar with - the symbol of the bank and its central most important requirement available anywhere you are.

Different faiths across the world have developed their own imagery as definitive symbols of the connotation they stand for. The churches of Europe, the mosques of the Middle East, the temples of South East Asia – wherever civilization has stood for a few centuries, there will be an idea captured by religious ritual. This ritual may vary from community to community, but the basic tenet is always the same - a gathering space that provides access to a symbol of faith.The techniques used by the builders of these spaces were as varied as the cultures they thrived in. The church builders strove for height and light, the mosque builders for expansiveness and quietude, and temple builders focused on mystery and embellishment. Each culture devised architectural details around religious rituals that remained frozen in time, requested as they were, by a higher authority. Every aspect of the building was meant to convey the presence of something extraordinary and as the means grew, so grew the art, the embellishment and the scale.

Architects were not always called upon to participate in the making of these spaces. In historic times, adherence to established principles was considered paramount. Creativity was required for sculpture and embellishment, but the basic layout was rarely changed, simply adjusted to fit to the area available. Increases in scale and development of construction technology slowly gave way to larger and taller buildings. However, until a hundred years ago, there would be scant variation of exterior form because so much of the perception depended upon the consistency of the exterior. The tiny details that would change were almost always based on site conditions, material availability and the funds available. A taller spire, a richer marble or a bigger forecourt was all that differentiated one religious building from the next.

The past century has changed all that. An increasingly secular, scientifically minded and technologically savvy global population is less dependent on religious ritual and more inclined to inwardly available spirituality. Conventional symbols of religionare still used to convey cultural significance and are understood by more people across the world. However, these symbols are no longer the heart of the community and people have found other, more consumerist symbols of culture. Countries have adopted more spectacular images to convey their identity, relying on natural resources or spectacular secular architecture to create the associations between place and people. The religious institution has lost its place as the center of power and the consistency of the building exteriors is not helping in this world of rapidly updated statuses and check-ins.

The eagerness of religious leaders to remain at the centre of public consciousness has led them to adopt many change-driven strategies. Some have become more tolerant, others have taken the opposite approach and become less so. Ideology apart, they all have one thing in common. A willingness to adopt newer approaches to exterior form to reflect the world they have to live in. Religious buildings in the past century have been radically experimental across most cultures. Technology-driven change has given rise to even more dramatic interpretations of form than have been seen in other architectural domains, public housing for instance. The twin central problems have still remained the same, though. How do you create a building that is revered from outside and how do you create a space within that can provide spiritual solace? Add to that the new requirement that the exterior must not rely on associated memory for recognition and you have a significant challenge. Thankfully, contemporary architects thrive on invention, not repetition. A great many contemporary religious buildings succeed on both these fronts and two specific ones -  Temppeliaukio Church by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and Kamppi Chapel of Silence by K2S Architects (see left) - come to mind. They are both in Helsinki, World Design Capital 2012, and they are both churches.

It is by studying both of these buildings that we can get insight into the profane tricks that architects use to create sacred spaces. They adopt any manner of devious architectural effects to create a sense of awe-inspired wonder. Both these buildings are mysterious from the outside, more abstract sculpture than Arcadian temple. Both are approached from busy cityscapes and are entered through mostly discrete entrances where the visitor finds himself in a nondescript ante space. This space is of no particular architectural character, a fragment created from the left over space of the fundamental form within and the site periphery outside.

But this lack of drama is a hoax, the turn before the prestige. As one steps into the primordial form through an opaque door, a stunning transformation takes place. Voices are lowered, the weariness of the walking, the weight of the backpack, any thought that was playing on the mind, all disappear. Companions whisper into each other’s ears and all that can be heard is the faint, hesitant clicking of cameras by the inevitable architectural students. The ones with religion at their heart take solace in a familiar symbol, abstracted almost beyond recognition, its importance betrayed only by the fact that all the furniture faces it. It is not even elevated from the main floor level and there are none of the usual attendant symbols to reinforce the religious intent of the space. There is no embellishment on the walls or the floors. It simply isn’t needed because everyone is quietly looking up.

There are no windows at eye level and both buildings have saved their party piece for the roof. They appear magically suspended, ringed with light streaming in from all directions. There is no direct sunlight creating a harsh focus within, the effect is one of a continuous ribbon of equal intensity forming a halo. There is however, nothing to suggest this has been done with a religious notion at heart as the object of reverence has been almost sidelined in this pursuit of ambient light and purity of expression.

However, the most spectacular architectural trick is the conscious retreat from the everyday world to the revered space within. The complete absence of any stimuli to suggest the cacophony outside is crucial to creating the all-pervading hush. There are no clues to navigate the narrative, just a plethora of thematic relationships in the fundamental formulation of the space. The strength of the contemporary approach is in allowing us the individual interpretation of the sacred. In giving us the space for depth of contemplation unimaginable in any other space we use during our daily lives. It is a place where we may stop looking around us and perhaps look within to find strength, peace or inspiration.

Amit Khanna
Amit Khanna Design Associates

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