Religion, in one form or another, has formed the core of human society for much of our history. It therefore stands to reason that religious architecture has found equal prominence in towns and cities across the globe. Faith carries different meanings for different peoples and cultures, resulting in a wide variety of approaches to the structures in which worship takes place: some favor sanctuaries, others places of education and community, while others place the greatest emphasis on nature itself. Indeed, many carry secondary importance as symbols of national power or cultural expression.
AD Classics are ArchDaily's continually updated collection of longer-form building studies of the world's most significant architectural projects. The collection of sacred spaces collated here invariably reveal one desire that remains constant across all faiths and cultures: shifting one’s gaze from the mundane and everyday and fixing it on the spiritual, the otherworldly, and the eternal.
Named for a 19th Century Danish pastor, politician, and philosopher, it is perhaps unsurprising that Grundtvig’s Church embodies the same nationalist romanticism as its namesake. The monument, utilizing design elements of traditional Danish country churches on the scale of a cathedral, is one of the world’s greatest examples of Expressionist architecture. The surrounding community, having been designed by the same architect as the church at its core, utilizes similar aesthetic styles in a flexible medieval layout.
The fusion of indigenous and colonial cultures finds Modernist expression in the form of the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice. Dubbed the “Flying Saucer,” the Parish echoes qualities of the traditional Filipino bahay kubo (“cube house”) in a thin concrete shell dome. As Grundtvig’s Church is for Denmark, the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice stands as a monument to the cultural history of the Philippines – a potent statement in a republic that had only been independent for nine years at the time of the chapel’s opening.
With its dramatic spire standing at 192 feet tall, the North Christian Church was the last building ever designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. Leery of the manner in which secondary program buildings tended to draw focus away from worship spaces in contemporary churches, Saarinen strove to ensure that the sanctuary—and, by association, the act of praising God—would be the unmistakable centerpiece of his creation. Accordingly, all accessory spaces in North Christian Church are submerged beneath the cavernous sanctuary, the hexagonal form of which radiates out from the altar at its center. Visitors must climb stairs from the ground level to enter this space, further emphasizing the elevated importance of worship itself.
The slender pine trusses of the Thorncrown Chapel seem to form a forest within a forest. Conceived as a non-denominational chapel where visitors could quietly “think [their] best thoughts,” Thorncrown was built by young architects and craftsmen out of local timber with the intent of minimal site impact in mind. The chapel draws over 2000 visitors every day, and has been named one of the American Institute of Architect’s top ten buildings of the 20th Century.
The Sagrada Familia, one of the best examples of Catalan Modernism, has been under construction since 1882. Although it follows a cruciform plan typical of a Gothic cathedral, the temple’s hyperboloid vaults and angled columns are a radical departure from Gothic stylings. Three of the building’s façades represent the Glory, Nativity, and Passion of Christ; the fourth will feature a tower representing the Virgin Mary. Generations of collaborative design and construction work are expected to finally be complete in 2026 – 144 years after the project was begun.
With its 27 marble-sheathed “leaves” shining white above verdant landscaping, the Lotus Temple is one of the most prominent and celebrated examples of architectural biomimicry on Earth. Inside the temple, visitors can admire the exposed concrete structure of the leaves, as well as the dramatic steel and glass skylight between their tips at the apex of the worship space. Primarily a Bahá'í temple, the temple is open to practitioners of all faiths, and has seen over 70 million worshipers since its opening in 1986.
Thanks to Tadao Ando’s minimalist design aesthetic, the Church of the Light is almost entirely devoid of the ornamentation typically found in church buildings; the purpose of the almost featureless concrete structure is only betrayed by the cross cutting a void in the mass of the eastern wall. The Church is an exercise in spatial duality: the solids and voids of the building call to mind the gap between the secular and the spiritual. Great care was taken both by Ando and the master carpenters working on the project to ensure the smoothness of the concrete surface and joints, providing no distraction from the symbolic qualities of form, light, and space.
The iconic columns of the Cathedral of Brasilia, bridged by enormous stained glass windows, earned architect Oscar Niemeyer the Pritzker Prize in 1988. The 16 parabolic steel columns, branching up from a diameter of 70 meters, are intended to represent a pair of hands in worship. With bells donated by Spain and an altar donated by Pope Paul VI, the Cathedral of Brasilia stands as the representation of the church’s power and influence in the capital of Brazil.
Louis Kahn’s approach to the First Unitarian Church of Rochester revolved around a question mark: the sanctuary, in which the questions that gave birth to Unitarianism arose. Wrapped around the central sanctuary are the classrooms, in which these questions were raised for discussion. This symbolic layout, in combination with the heavy brick and concrete construction, made it challenging to bring light into the sanctuary; Kahn’s solution was to place four light towers at the space’s corners, filling the space with constantly changing natural illumination.
Built for the United States Air Force Academy, the Cadet Chapel required three chapels to represent the three dominant faiths in American society: Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, and Judaism. The seventeen rows of spires, comprising over 100 identical tetrahedrons, are framed with tubular steel and clad in aluminum sheeting. The stained glass windows between each triangular unit become progressively brighter as they approach the altar, drawing the eye along the 92-foot tall nave to its end. The USAFA Cadet Chapel is an icon of Modernist sacred architecture, and was named a United States National Historic Landmark in 2004.