Photo: Iwan Baan


The religious significance of a building depends not only on typo-logy and symbolism, but also on orientation. Christian churches generally have an altar aligned to the east, anticipating the return of Christ, while mosques are customarily directed towards Mecca. The original Amir Shakib Arslan Mosque, in Moukhtara, Lebanon, had an atypical alignment, but the New York-based LEFT Architects saw the possibility of correcting it as part of a renovation project. It was at the same time a splendid opportunity to break with the traditional mosque typology (cube, dome and minaret). A modernized aspect – more abstract, lighter and more open – would accord with the humanist tradition present in Islam.

Several architectonic modifications, affecting both the interior and exterior, were carried out with this intention. LEFT Architects brought about the realignment by adding a minaret, a canopy and a portico to the original stonework mosque. The new structures are formed of vertically parallel strips of white-painted steel that combine to give the impression of a curtain. The thin-edged strips are aligned exactly towards Mecca, and when viewed from an appropriate standpoint they give a practically unbroken view of the mosque. Deviating from this angle of view closes the strips up to present a relatively opaque visual surface. A mosque is characteristically an opaque structure, but this semi-transparent curtain demarcates a new space located between inside and outside, and establishes a connection between what happens inside the mosque and what takes place before it, on the plaza designed by LEFT.

In the upper part of the minaret, the metalwork is shaped to form the name Allah. Here too a subtle game of openness and opacity is in play. From one angle, the name appears as solid letters against an almost transparent background, while from another it is legible as open lettering spared out from the white background. It is an openness that symbolizes the immaterial, ineffable essence of the divine. A similar inscription is worked into the portico, in this case the word Insan (Human). Allah and humankind are thus placed side by side in the minaret and the portico – another manifestation of the humanistic aspect of Islam.

The interventions of LEFT Architects inside the mosque are more modest in scale but their effect is no less striking. Thanks to a new rooflight spared out in the vaulted ceiling, daylight now bathes the white-painted walls. The rooflight is aligned towards Mecca, as we might expect, while also providing a glimpse of the minaret from the mosque interior. A concave shield of stainless steel adds a further dimension to the prayer space, again marking the direction of Mecca. The wooden screen against an opposite wall is shaped with the word for “read” in relief, calling worshippers to study the verses of the Koran attentively and critically.


Photo: Bahaa Ghoussainy

Photo: Iwan Baan


A concrete box, slender and elegant though it may be, is not something one normally associates with a synagogue. Nonetheless, the budget and the optimal use of the site made this the preferred form for the new synagogue of the Liberal Jewish Community in Amsterdam. That the Amsterdam architecture firm SeARCH opted for a rationalistic form had further reasons, however. The synagogue board of management requested a contemporary appearance. And the Jewish diaspora had in any case developed less of a distinct architectural style for its synagogues in comparison to mosques and churches. That turned out to be an advantage: it left SeARCH’s hands free to make an original design that accorded with the openness and contemporaneity of the Liberal Jewish congregation.

Despite its neutral form, the building immediately presents itself as a synagogue due to the excision of a gigantic menorah from the facade. This branched candelabrum has held a historic place in Jewish custom as a symbol of enlightenment. In the interior, it becomes clear how cleverly this religious symbol has been integrated into the architecture. Conceptually, the building may be seen as a volume into which openings are carved.

hese openings are a reference to the enigma of the subtle, complex character of Jewish identity. A sense of community is established by a prayer hall of traditional layout, with a central podium, a cupboard with Torah scrolls, and benches on either side for the congregation. There are four balconies, two on each side, which result in a spatial cross-section in the form of a seven-armed candelabrum. It is a fascinating invention: what appears on the outside as a striking emblem of the faith is reproduced in the cross-section of the prayer space itself. The social functions of the synagogue are no less important to the Liberal Jewish Community. Besides the prayer hall and a ritual bath, the synagogue incorporates functions such as classrooms for Bar/Bat Mitzvah training on Sundays, a library and spaces for social activities. These functions too received an architectural interpretation, in the pattern of windows in the façade. Taut and simple though the exterior may look, a varied spatiality arises in the interior with its atrium and generous staircase. The prayer hall protrudes into the atrium as a building within a building, and round tiles on the convex sections refer to similar tiling on the façade. The distinction between inside and outside is subtly undermined.


Photos: Iwan Baan


For a much of the world’s population, religion is what gives meaning to life. But religion is a wide-ranging concept, and the word can be interpreted in many different ways. The remarkable achievement of the Salgenreute Kapelle, designed by Bernardo Bader Architekten from Bregenz, Austria, is how the building succeeds in encapsulating this semantic diversity with such precision.

The chapel nestles like a jewel in the mountainous Austrian landscape near the hamlet of Salgenreute. Although its stone foundation and its wooden exterior walls may be read as references to the vernacular of farmhouses in the region, it is notable for the splendid equilibrium of its form and the refined texture of the larch wood that clads the façades. The chapel lacks a spire, but it is the steep, monumental roof that establishes the spiritual symbolism of the building. Inside, the space is no less impressive. Twelve wooden frames articulate the vertical development of the roof. The raking light that enters through the rear window accentuates the textile-like surfaces in the white-painted apse. Unusually, a Virgin Mary statue rescued from the previous chapel is positioned to one side of the space. The effigy consequently functions as an intermediary between the praying congregation indoors and the natural landscape, God’s creation, outside. The façades and roof, the door of forged bronze, the arched door-latch, the wooden benches and wall panelling – all these have been designed with care and fabricated with ample craftsmanship. It is clear that Bernardo Bader has worked to establish the chapel closely with the local community – a community engrained as it were in the stones and the wood of which it is built. There is nothing eccentric about the building; it is modest to the eye, and it blends with the surrounding Austrian mountains as though it had always been there. At the same time the chapel rises above the commonplace, forming a unique locus where the solicitudes of everyday life may be set aside; a place to become absorbed in contemplation and religious ritual.

That transcendence of the ordinary, that communal elevation of the everyday to sanctity, may be regarded as Bernardo Bader’s answer to the question of what we understand as religion.



Nature used to be regarded as a threat. Buildings were meant to provide protection against nature. But now that there is a growing awareness that human beings are actually part of nature and depend on it, architects seek more and more ways to restore contact with it and to imbue it with meaning. A bond with nature helps us experience a better way of existence, a way aimed not at domination and productivity but at devotion and spirituality.

That the Chinese architecture office Archstudio treats contact with nature as the central theme of its Waterside Buddhist Shrine in Tangshan, Hebei Province, is a result of this fresh outlook. The implicit message of the design is that sanctity is inherent to nature. The building serves as a means of spiritual experience. In this respect, the dialectic between the artificial and the natural remains relevant: you need one to become conscious of the other.

The Waterside Buddhist Shrine lies in woods by a river. The soil has been heaped up to form a mound into which the building is almost completely embedded. This and the avoidance of uprooting even a single tree gives the woodland its due respect. The natural landscape flows serenely, unaffected by the abrupt discontinuity of a building. Affinity with nature recurs in every aspect of the Waterside Buddhist Shrine. Right at the entrance, it is clear what this building is about. To enter, the visitor must walk a narrow path between two trees. The theme is also strongly expressed in the materials used. They are natural materials with a warm aura and a tactile quality, such as wood, bamboo, terrazzo and pebbles. Even the structural concrete members are drawn into this theme by being cast with a wood-grain texture.

The ground plan is reminiscent of branches reaching out into the woodland. In so doing it follows biologically-based principles gauged to maximize contact with the natural surroundings. These “branches” comprise five different functions: the entrance, the Buddhist meditation room, the ceremonial tea room, the living room and the bathroom. These spaces intercommunicate in such a way that you may find yourself wandering unintentionally from room to room