Architecture for the Gods
These religious structures are testament not only to their creative designers (who are usually not squeamish about challenging tradition) but to the congregations and clergy who give their consent to experiment. Great sacred architecture is always a collaboration.
The unifying theme, then, might be that even after thousands of years, religious buildings continue to be wide open to interpretation. Evolution, experimentation, challenges to tradition, the invention of new identities—all of these qualities can be found in religious buildings that we design and build today.
Glavin Family Chapel
The program for this chapel designed by William Rawn Associates was to provide a spiritual place at the heart of this New England campus of Babson College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The building is almost a perfect cube.
Inside, the 30-foot (9-meter) high space provides a nondenominational sanctuary for gatherings of up to 50 people. The chapel has purposely been placed on the uphill side of the site to create an ascending path from the heart of the campus center that ends in a relationship between sanctuary and nature.
Exterior stone steps set flush to the sloped lawn lead up to an intimate foyer which, bathed in diffuse light, is screened from the secular world. Entering this foyer through ornamented paneled doors, the lofty sanctuary is fully revealed, with dramatic stained glass windows set against the views of the natural landscape.
The walls of the building are a balance of solid and void. The two transparent walls face the uphill woods and offer a sense of landscape, peace, and contemplation. Natural light is modulated by deciduous trees. The two solid walls are of Deer Isle granite, and face the busy central campus. These solid walls provide a sense of protection and thus solitude.
Iconography was designed to serve multiple faiths; themes of nature that are common to all religions abound in the chapel. In addition to the actual natural setting that infuses the space of the sanctuary, abstractions of nature are found in the art adorning its special features.
The celestial imagery in the main doors of the sanctuary, the reeds and flowers at the base of the altar/bimah, and the dynamic waves that fill the stained glass windows—each of these serve as a reminder of man's place in the natural world.
Additionally, as a nod to the spiritual reflections of the college's founder, forms derived from sailing vessels influence the hull-like ceiling of the sanctuary and the rising sail that crowns the exterior tower.
Islamic Cultural Center
The Islamic Cultural Center is the first mosque and religious center for New York City's Muslim community. The design by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is intended to formulate an architectural expression that represents the rich and varied traditions of the Muslim world in the context of the 20th century.
The center is located on a 200- by 240-foot (61- by 73-meter) site, bounded by Third Avenue and 96th and 97th Streets. The original master plan consists of a 1,000-person mosque, a minaret (designed by another architect), an adjoining administrative building that will contain classrooms for teaching the Koran, a library, and administrative offices.
The mosque is oriented toward Mecca as required by religious law. As such, its placement on the site is rotated and skewed off the city grid. The positioning of the mosque creates a large open space that acts as a forecourt where worshipers can gather prior to the call for prayers, as is the tradition.
The prayer hall is entered through a monumental portal fronting the court. The upper portion of the portal is formed by a composition of squares and cubic inscriptions in carved relief.
The lower portion consists of a pair of 15-foot (4.5-meter) high bronze doors. In the opened position, as they would be during the ceremonies, layers of glass panels suspended from the structure above are revealed. Each layer of glass is cut in a series of steps to ultimately resemble an arch recalling traditional stalactite portals.
Beyond the portal is a vestibule that acts as a transitional zone to the religious realm and as a weather barrier. From inside the prayer hall, the view is unobstructed in every direction and to the full height of the perimeter walls.
Natural light plays an important role in defining and enhancing the interior space. Light is filtered into the space through the large glazed areas set within the trusses and which are patterned with fired ceramic surface decoration reflecting an Islamic design. A circular mass of lights suspended by cords from the underside of the dome form a low roof of light above the congregation.
Michael J. Crosbie is a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek and an associate at Steven Winter Associates, Inc., in Norwalk, Connecticut. His new book, "Architecture for the Gods," surveys more than forty such projects.
This article is excerpted from Architecture for the Gods, by Michael J. Crosbie. Copyright © 2000 by The Images Publishing Group Pty Ltd. Originally published by The Images Publishing Group. Used by arrangement with Watson-Guptill Publications (New York). It is available where books are sold including at Amazon.com.