Visual Culture

6 Modern Churches That Are Serene Refuges from the World

Demie Kim
Jul 11, 2017 4:49PM

From Tadao Ando’s austere Church of the Light to Eero Saarinen’s riveting North Christian Church, architects of the 20th century have designed churches that both meet the demands of contemporary religious communities and function as poignant meditations on modern spirituality. These sacred spaces forgo the ornamental motifs of cathedrals past—instead employing novel materials and methods to create evocative spaces in which visitors can reflect and find peace.

Shigeru Ban, Cardboard Cathedral, 2013

Christchurch, New Zealand

Photo by Forgemind ArchiMedia, via Flickr.

The Transitional Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, was built to temporarily replace (for a span of 50 years) an iconic 19th-century Anglican cathedral after it was severely damaged in a series of earthquakes, most notably the 6.3 magnitude quake that devastated the city in 2011.

Known as the “Cardboard Cathedral” and designed by the Japanese architect Ban—who is internationally recognized for his use of recycled paper to house victims of emergency disasters—the church consists of 98 equally sized cardboard tubes, all coated in waterproof polyurethane and flame retardants, and eight steel shipping containers. The building’s facade is adorned with a colorful mosaic etched with designs from the original cathedral.

E. Fay Jones, Thorncrown Chapel, 1980

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Photo by Bobak Ha'Eri, via Wikimedia Commons.


Inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, American architect Jones designed this “Ozark Gothic” chapel—now a canonical work of American architecture—in the woods near Eureka Springs, Arkansas. To integrate the form into the surrounding landscape, Fay deemed that no construction element could be larger than what a pair of men could transport through the woods.

With its repeated vertical structure and over 400 glass windows, the chapel is a transparent “forest within a forest” that maximizes natural light and aims to inspire its guests to connect to both nature and God. A close friend of starchitect Frank Lloyd Wright, Jones, an Arkansas native, was far less hungry for fame; his modest personality is evident in the words inscribed at the chapel’s entrance: “Please come in and sit awhile, just as you are.”

Peter Zumthor, Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, 2007

Mechernich-Wachendorf, Germany

Photo by Kateer, via Wikimedia Commons.

This evocative field chapel in the German countryside pays homage to Bruder Klaus, the 15th-century patron saint of the local farmers—the latter of whom helped build the design by Swiss architect Zumthor. It’s noted for its novel method of construction: Twenty-four layers of concrete were poured on a wigwam frame of 112 tree trunks, which was then ignited, resulting in singed walls and a hollow cavity within.

The oculus in the roof allows rain and sunlight to infiltrate the space, creating different atmospheres depending on the weather and time of day. (On a sunlit day, the hole resembles the blaze of a star, an allusion to Bruder Klaus’s vision in the womb.)

“To me, buildings can have a beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence, and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well,” Zumthor has said. “A building that is being itself, being a building, not representing anything, just being.”

Eero Saarinen, North Christian Church, 1964

Columbus, Indiana

Photo by Greg Hume, via Wikimedia Commons.

During the planning stages of his North Christian Church, Saarinen lamented the increasing relegation of contemporary religious architecture to secondary spaces within large complexes. “Today, there are Sunday school rooms and good-fellowship rooms and kitchens and gymnasiums and square dancing rooms and so forth.…The church itself has become an insignificant, and almost forgotten little thing,” he said.

To solve this problem in his design for the church—the last building he designed before his tragic death in 1961—Saarinen sequestered all secondary functions to the floor beneath the central space of worship. The building’s plan consists of a hexagon with piers on each corner converging at the top of the roof, which shoots upwards into a spire topped with a small gold cross.

Tadao Ando, Church of the Light, 1989

Osaka, Japan

Photo by Chris HE, via Flickr.

Completed in 1989, Ando’s Church of the Light was commissioned as part of the first phase of a redesign of a Christian compound in Ibaraki, a residential suburb of Osaka, Japan. (A sunday school by Ando was later added to the compound in 1999.) The lack of any embellishments or frills within the structure, which is composed of heavy concrete walls and largely devoid of traditional Christian imagery, results in a serene, contemplative space.

“I create enclosed spaces mainly by means of thick, concrete walls,” Ando once said. “The primary reason is to create a place for the individual, a zone for oneself within society.” The Church of the Light is a prime example of Ando’s signature use of light to shape spatial perception. The sole religious motif inside the building is a void in the shape of a cross that has been cut into the east facade, where it filters light into the otherwise dark interior.

Oscar Niemeyer, Cathedral of Brasília, 1970

Brasília, Brazil

Photo by Joana França, via Wikimedia Commons.

The visionary Brazilian architect Niemeyer was selected to design the first buildings in Brasília, the futuristic metropolis that replaced Rio de Janeiro as the nation’s capital in the late 1950s. “Until Brasília, I regarded architecture as an exercise to be practiced in a sporting spirit and nothing more,” Niemeyer once said. “Now I live for Brasília.”

Along with the Presidential Palace and Ministry of Justice buildings, Niemeyer designed a striking cathedral with a hyperboloid structure composed of 16 concrete columns that radiate out, resembling two hands reaching up toward the heavens, or by some accounts, the crown of thorns. Inside, the 360-degree ceiling is decorated in stained glass of aquamarine hues, and three winged angels hang over the nave. Outside, a group of figurative statues known as the Four Evangelists stand guard. Niemeyer was awarded the Pritzker Prize for the cathedral in 1988.

Demie Kim