The daring architectural advances in ages of faith—from Periclean Athens to medieval to Counter-Reformation Europe—subsided into historical pastiche for more than a century, only to be revived by freethinking moderns. Other building types are tightly programmed; religious commissions allow architects to abstract their art and reach for the sublime. They offer license to reflect upon the entire legacy of construction, playing inventive variations on traditional themes of mass and void, light and shadow, exuberance and restraint. Like a house, a worship space can be a laboratory for testing new ideas. Massimiliano Fuksas forgot to include a cross in his church for earthquake-ravaged Foligno, but the spatial daring of the interior almost persuades one to be a Christian (as art critic Roger Fry said of Bach). In the increasingly secular countries of northern Europe, sacred spaces confer identity on mundane new developments and serve as social centers for the community. Architecture was once in the service of religion; now it’s often the other way around.
The great strength of this anthology is the detailed coverage of every project. In his succinct notes, Pallister sets each in its physical and historical context, explaining why the architects made the choices they did. The drawings and photographs are exemplary and well captioned. Brief biographies of each firm, a bibliography and index combine with lucid layouts and high production values to make this a covetable volume.
It could have been even better. Pallister is erudite, sometimes self-consciously so, but his longer texts are awkwardly phrased. An opportunity was missed to illustrate the best 20th-century religious buildings that anticipate the ones featured here, rather than the random selection of Hagia Sophia, Durham Cathedral, and Palladio’s Redentore, which belong in a historical survey. Auguste Perret, Alvar Aalto, and Rudolph Schwartz led the way in bringing church architecture into the modern age and they deserve acknowledgment.
The thematic groupings—Congregation, Clarity, Mass, Reflection, and Revelation—are vague and several projects seem to have strayed under the wrong heading. The Liberal synagogue in Amsterdam is all about openness and light, not mass. The Buddhist Meditation Center in the Dutch countryside is a frugal riff on the rural vernacular, and it sits oddly beside minimalist white interiors by John Pawson, Toyo Ito, and Jun Aoki. But these are minor objections—buildings of such distinction cannot be neatly labeled. Best of all, these spaces are uncluttered with the bondieuseries that detract from one’s enjoyment of so many religious spaces (notably Moneo’s Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles).