written by:
April 24, 2014
One of the oldest types of public space gets reimagined in incredible visions of glass, steel and concrete.
Oscar Niemeyer, Church of St Francis of Assisi
Oscar Niemeyer, Church of St Francis of Assisi (1943)

The Brazilian master of curved concrete made his mark with the Pampulha Architectural Complex, which showcased the radical Church of St. Francis of Assisi. This modernist touchstone with a parabolic roof and polychromatic tiles was such a departure from existing forms that one politician suggested demolishing it.

1 / 10
Shigeru Ban, Cardboard Cathedral
Shigeru Ban, Cardboard Cathedral

A testament to the strength, skill, and poignancy of the Pritzker winner’s “emergency architecture,” this A-frame marvel of cardboard tubing and shipping containers served as a potent symbol for Christchurch’s recovery after an earthquake. In another symbolic touch, the stained glass triangle at the front of the church incorporates imagery from the former cathedral’s famous rose window.

2 / 10
Marcel Breuer, St. John’s Abbey
Marcel Breuer, St. John’s Abbey (1961)

Designed by a Bauhaus icon, the modernist Minnesota church greets the faithful with a bell tower perched upon a curvaceous concrete stand. Breuer follows up a strong introduction with the church itself, boasting a massive wall of hexagonal stained glass and bold concrete tresses.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

3 / 10
Le Corbusier, Notre Dame du Haut
Le Corbusier, Notre Dame du Haut (1955)

What looks like an abstracted cottage from a distance, with whitewashed walls and a strangely curved roof, becomes an architectural epiphany up close. Le Corbusier’s magnificent design—from the bent roof that creates a natural fountain when it rains, to the overall sculptural form—make it a celebrated outlier in his career. A wall with small slits and squares cut for light produces a glittering, spiritual calm when viewed from inside.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

4 / 10
Richard Meier, Jubilee Church
Richard Meier, Jubilee Church (1996)

American architect Richard Meier won a design competition held by the bishop of Rome to create a church for the far suburbs of the Italian capital. Meier’s design recalls ships in a harbor, with three airy sails of self-cleaning concrete fanning out from the main chapel. Most miraculous, perhaps, is that the company that developed the special concrete for this project suggested that the material actually fights pollution and absorbs noxious chemicals in car exhaust.

Photo courtesy Jeffrey Montes, Creative Commons

5 / 10
Walter A. Netsch Jr., Cadet Chapel
Walter A. Netsch Jr., Cadet Chapel (1959)

Looking more like a space-age battleship than a house of worship from certain angles, architect Walter A. Netsch Jr.’s futuristic temple is an angular assemblage of five-ton metal tetrahedrons, built out of the same aluminum panels as jet fighter wings. Winner of the American Institute of Architects' 25 Year Award and a United States National Historic Landmark, the set of 17 spires might as well be a squadron screaming towards the heavens.

Photo courtesy David, Creative Commons

6 / 10
E. Fay Jones, Thorncrown Chapel
E. Fay Jones, Thorncrown Chapel (1980)

This is not a still from Game of Thrones, but the story of this unique chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is just as fantastical. Jim Reed hired Frank Lloyd Wright associate E. Fay Jones to build the chapel as a waystation of sorts for visitors on his land, who passed through seeking the magnificent views of the Ozark hills. From the pine cut thin so it could be easily carried inconspicuously through the woods to the constantly shifting shadows created by the grid of cross trusses, Thorncrown is a place, as Jones said, “to think your best thoughts.”

Photo courtesy David Holmes, Creative Commons

7 / 10
Philip Johnson, Crystal Cathedral
Philip Johnson, Crystal Cathedral (1981)

Home to the massive congregation of preacher Robert Schuller, famous for the Hour of Power television show, the Crystal Cathedral certainly puts the mega in megachurch. Technically a tower of glass, the $18 million structure designed by Philip Johnson utilizes silicon-based glue to hold the 10,000 glass panes in place (it can withstand a 8.0 earthquake). It’s currently being renovated by the Catholic church, which purchased the space after Schuller went bankrupt in 2010.

Photo courtesy Forgemind ArchiMedia, Creative Commons

8 / 10
Di Vece Arquitectos, Capilla del Lago
Di Vece Arquitectos, Capilla del Lago (2010)

Working on a slightly smaller scale, this waterfront, open-air structure in Michoacán, Mexico, boasts supports that function like a cluster of votives at night.

Photo courtesy Di Vece Arquitectos

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I.M. Pei, Luce Memorial Chapel
I.M. Pei, Luce Memorial Chapel (1963)

When architect I.M. Pei designed this chapel for Tunghai University in Taiwan, he had to take local conditions, like typhoons and earthquakes, into account. His plan, which, included a curved roof of glazed, diamond-shaped tiles and interior ribs of reinforced concrete that run like ribbons towards the cross mounted on the roof, was an elegant solution to the challenges of the local environment.

Photo courtesy Valter Wei, Creative Commons

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Oscar Niemeyer, Church of St Francis of Assisi
Oscar Niemeyer, Church of St Francis of Assisi (1943)

The Brazilian master of curved concrete made his mark with the Pampulha Architectural Complex, which showcased the radical Church of St. Francis of Assisi. This modernist touchstone with a parabolic roof and polychromatic tiles was such a departure from existing forms that one politician suggested demolishing it.

From the scale and ambition of Europe’s grand cathedrals to humble roadside buildings turned into places of spiritual retreat, church architecture has always been a fertile field for artistic expression and technological innovation. And while the form is literally thousands of years old, it doesn’t mean that new spins on established forms can’t continue to amaze.

Dwell rounded up some of the most innovative examples of church construction, featuring modern masters such as Le Corbusier and Niemeyer.

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