Where Spirit Meets Stone

Whether centuries old or just-built, houses of worship tend to embody the spiritual side of architecture

Some—indeed many—of the most extraordinary buildings ever constructed are houses of worship. Designed as the physical embodiment of a belief system, these examples of religious architecture stand impressive and imposing, sometimes centuries after their construction. The temples of ancient Egypt, thought to be the dwelling place of the gods, still reflect the power of the Pharaohs.

The 17th century Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul, better known as the Blue Mosque, appears to rise from the Sea of Marmara—its cascading domes and six minarets intended to overshadow the nearby Byzantine Church of Hagia Sophia. London's majestic Westminster Abbey, built between the 13th and 16th centuries, is considered a 32,000 square foot architectural masterpiece.

And soaring above the modern-day urban bustle of Athens is the Parthenon. Built on the Acropolis in the fifth century BC, it served as both a treasury building and a site for venerating deities. Today, it is considered the high point of Greek architecture as well as a symbol of Ancient Greece.

Local Influences

Houses of worship offer a place where humans can commune with other worlds. They can be as small and austere as a cliffside cave or as grand as the gothic cathedrals of Europe. In terms of scale, for instance, the Vatican in Rome can hold 60,000 worshippers, while some 3 million Muslims pray at Mecca in Saudi Arabia each year during the pilgrimage of the Hajj.

Geography and time have, of course, influenced religious architecture. The round arches, vaults, and domes of the typical mosque were influenced largely by Byzantine builders. In contrast, while orthodox Jewish synagogues include a version of the Tabernacle, the portable place of worship used by the Hebrews during their Exodus from Egypt, most synagogues have adopted the architectural elements of the countries and cultures in which they stand.

Similarly, houses of worship built more recently reflect their modern materials and building technologies. Many still incorporate traditional symbols and elements such as pews, minarets, steeples, bell towers, deities, sculptural friezes, sanctuaries, and arks, yet they may stray from conventionally held notions of religious architecture. Some—such as Tadao Ando's Water Temple, a serene Buddhist space submerged beneath a pond—introduce radical new designs.

Faith and Technology

Others—such as the small Iglesia de la Santa Maria de las Brisas in Chile—couldn't have been built without state-of-the-art technology. Some impress with their size: The King Shah Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, can hold 80,000 worshippers. Meanwhile, the Temple Bat Yahm, in Newport Beach, Calif., embodies modern principles of green architecture.

"One of the things I have noticed evolving over time," says Michael Crosbie, editor-in-chief of Faith & Form magazine, "is more energy efficient religious buildings. Many congregations are linking their religious beliefs to stewardship of the earth." Also, he says, there's an increasing interest in abstract, amorphous structures, with some of the most modern and cutting edge designs found outside of the U.S., notably in Europe.

The pyramids and the Vatican still inspire awe. But in our search for new wonders of the religious world, we looked for buildings unmatched in form or scale, and for structures that incorporated new materials and technologies. All are active houses of worship, rather than museums or archaeological relics. And all represent a modern bridge between the physical and the spiritual.

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