In 'a field report from the cult of Corbusier', the architecture of 30 religious buildings gets reverential treatment, writes Dominic Green.

"I do not know the miracle of faith," modernist architect Le Corbusier confessed in 1961, "but I often experience that of ineffable space, which is the highest level of artistic emotion." 

Beautifully photographed, and elegantly elucidated by James Pallister, Sacred Spaces: Contemporary Religious Architecture is a field report from the cult of Corbusier. The 30 new religious buildings in this intriguing book represent every major faith, and the locales range from the forests of China to the fields of Germany, the suburbs of Bangladesh to the shores of San Francisco. Almost all of the designs use that most ineffable of space-making materials: concrete. The first surprise is that some of the results are beautiful. The second is that even the ugly designs are interesting. 

Classically modernist, Saint-Pierre church, designed by Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, displays both form and function.
Classically modernist, Saint-Pierre church, designed by Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, displays both form and function. © AFP

As Christianity withers in Europe, old churches are converted into apartments and community centres, and new churches seem determined to accommodate secular habits. The Dutch Reformed Church at Rijsenhout replaces a church erased by the expansion of Schiphol airport. It looks like an airport outbuilding: a pile of plain, windowless cubes, with departure lounge seats under strip lighting inside. The funeral chapel at Ingelheim, an otherwise blameless village on the Rhine, resembles an IKEA showroom. The benches in its meditation garden are backless concrete blocks, as if the architects take the mourners for vandals. These are designs of despair. 

As the dramatic photos in Sacred Spaces show, modernism renounced the sheltering arch and the noble spire, the traditions that link faith to its ancient origins. The best of Pallister's selections are quiet heresies against modernism, a tempering of zeal by older traditions and natural forms. The Sunset Chapel at Acapulco, Mexico, looks like a boulder. At the mosque at Chandgaon, Bangladesh, Kashef Chowdhury separates sacred and profane by simple geometry, a circle set in a square, and a cool marble interior that contrasts with the jungle outside. At Toyo Ito's funeral hall in Kakamigahara, Japan, life and death dissolve into each other. The long white wave of the roof harmonises with the lake outside and rests on pillars fluted like trees. 

Often, though, modernism is not speechless before the ineffable, so much as confused. In China, the Church of Seed rises from sacred Mount Luofu like a Bond villain's lair. The exterior of San Francisco's Beth Sholom synagogue is an ark, the bearer of community, but this formal conceit creates a sanctuary with steeply banked sides, unsuited to young, old and disabled congregants. The Islamic cemetery at Altach, Austria, has the opposite problem: its plain, low buildings are so functional they forget their form.