The Architecture of the Religious Buildings

When most people think of a church or a temple or a mosque, they envision the worship space, the tall generous area where the members gather to participate in the services. For some, generally smaller religious buildings, this is the extent of the structure. Most religious buildings, however, include more than the worship space and are more appropriately thought of as a complex rather than as structure with a single space and a single function. The worship space is always the main event, the function around which all of the others revolve. But it is not always the most frequently used or visited. For a religious complex to work properly, all of the disparate parts must be understood, resolved and properly related.


Worship Space

The worship space, sometimes called the sanctuary is, of course, the most important element of the religious complex. This space itself has several components. There is the seating area. In some buildings, this is sometimes slightly sloped for better visibility. Often in traditional religious buildings, it is arranged in a long rectangular area, as in the nave of a church. Sometimes, seating is arranged in a “T” formation, as in a nave and transept. Sometimes it is more centrally planned, as is a theater in the round, either a half round or a three quarters round or a full theater in the round. Some structures include balconies and mezzanines as part of the seating areas. Always, the seating area has a central aisle, without which processions, and particularly marriages, could not be properly performed.

Long rectangular seating                         T” or transept seating                                        Half round seating

Then there is the area where the priest, minister or celebrant stands, sometimes referred to as the chancel or perdella. It is the area where the altar is located, where the lecterns are placed for readings and for sermons or homilies, and in some traditions, where the baptistery is located. This platform is frequently raised several steps for better visibility and visual emphasis. Frequently, there is an element which forms the rear of this area, called a reredos, which visually acts as a backdrop. Different denominations and religions have different names for and sometimes a variety of different functions in this area, but the main purpose is the same.

Most religions include organized group singing or chanting, and a location for this choir is another component of the worship space. The choir is generally located either in the back in a balcony, or the front behind the altar or chancel area, either at the same level as the chancel and to one side or in a balcony directly behind the chancel. Choir members either remain seated in the choir area when they are not singing or they may return to their seats in the general seating area.

In addition to the singers in the choir area, there are the musical instruments, generally either a piano or more typically, an organ. If an organ is used, its pipes can form an extremely strong visual element and should be carefully located. Of course, the pipes can be hidden as well. If an electronic organ is used, false pipes are frequently introduced because they are such powerful visual elements.

Many Christian religious institutions provide for a baptistery in the sanctuary. The Baptist tradition makes the baptistery the focal point of the worship space, locating it in the chancel in the front. Sometimes the baptistery is mobile so that it can be easily moved to the chancel from a side chapel when it is being used. Baptisteries are also located in separate rooms off of the sanctuary. Some traditions encourage the location of the baptistery to be at or near the entrance, in recognition that this is the first rite of the religion, initiating the participant into the faith.

In some religious worship centers, audio visual systems play a large role. Screens and projection areas for slides or Power Point presentations need to be considered, well located and integrated into the worship space. A worship space with carelessly added screens will appear sloppy. Frequently a control console for the audio visual equipment is required. This element also requires thought and proper integration into the worship area. Simply placing the control consol somewhere in the seating area is not a strong solution.

Storage is another important part of the worship space. Decorations which are used only on special occasions such as Christmas require an area, as do the many other items associated with the worship space, such as additional seats and so forth. The storage can be shared with the other functions of the complex, but it must be sufficient.

There are several visual and other considerations which are important to a worship space. First of all, the spaces are generously tall. As in any space where large numbers of people congregate, a generous height mitigates the crowdedness of the multitude of people as well as adding an appropriate magnificence to the space.

Second, the expression of the structure is frequently used in the worship area to intensify the geometry of the space. Soaring spaces are enhanced by an expression of the soaring structure. This expression reached its apex, perhaps, with gothic architecture.



                Amiens                                              Chartres

Third, light is an important consideration. The quality of the natural light in the worship space should be carefully considered. Although some very successful religious structures have been flooded with light, such as Fay Jones’ Thorn Crown Chapel, too much light can often destroy the inward religious sense deemed appropriate for many religious structures. Stained glass windows are one way to modulate the amount of light in the worship space. It is instructive to compare pictures of the gothic cathedral at Amiens where the stained glass windows were destroyed in the second world war with a sister cathedral such as Chartres which retains its stained glass windows. Without the modulation of light through the stained glass, full light was allowed to penetrate Amiens Cathedral. It was transformed from a strongly, almost magically religious place, such as Chartres, to looking more like a railroad station. Full light can flatten and “demystify” a religious space.

Interior lighting is another important and potentially powerful component of a worship space. Of course, there must be enough light for people in the seating areas to read by. In addition, lighting the ceiling will show off and emphasize the dramatic height of a religious structure. The lighting to read by must not counteract the lighting used to emphasize the ceiling. Other lights can emphasize different elements of the structure. Often there are different scenarios of combinations of these lights. There are lighting panels which permit the different “scenes”, as they are called, to be called up at the push of a button.

Fourth, depending on the tradition or denomination, the worship space may be where sculpture, paintings, icons, specific religious quotations and so forth are displayed. Properly done they can become a powerful enhancement of the space. Lighting, both natural and electric, must be so arranged that the elements can be easily seen and even emphasized. (It is baffling how in some Italian churches, magnificent works of art are so poorly lit as to be nearly invisible.)

Fifth, proper materials must be used. Many people will insist that their religious spaces have better finishes than one might expect in a less important structure. However too much showy material can be just that – too showy. Different denomination, also, have different traditions of how plain or how decorated the interior of their worship spaces should be.

Sixth, the acoustics of the space, particularly larger spaces, must be considered. The acoustics for signing or chanting frequently require a different sound than the acoustics for properly understanding the spoken word. These requirements must be balanced. An acoustical consultant is frequently used.

Related to the worship space, there are several ancillary functions. Many denominations expect a room for the celebrant to prepare for the service, sometimes called a sacristy. Altar furniture, such as candelabra and special books, are often stored in this room. A bride’s room is often considered a necessary separate space, located in the rear of the worship space. A cry room is frequently included, although this function can be replaced by a nursery, discussed later. Often toilet facilities are located close to the worship space for the convenience of the worshipers during the services, even though more extensive toilet facilities may be located elsewhere in the complex.

A major ancillary space associated with the worship area is the vestibule or narthex. Although in some religious structures, this is simply a small vestibule to separate the worship space from direct exposure to the exterior and weather, and many worship spaces do not even have such a space, a large generous narthex is often used as an informal assembly area by the worshipers immediately after the service. In this event, the narthex should be treated with the same care and consideration as the worship space itself, with high ceilings, proper and dramatic lighting, possible expression of the structure, and proper materials.

Secondary Chapels are frequently included. These are used for smaller gatherings or more private prayer and meditation. Sometimes they are dedicated to special people or families or specific aspects of the particular religion. These chapels can be organized in niches or separate areas of the main worship space or, as is sometimes done, in the basement below the main worship space in a crypt or undercroft.

In some religious structures, a columbarium is incorporated near the worship space. The columbarium is sometimes located with a chapel in the crypt or undercroft. Some columbaria are placed outdoors in a garden.

Finally, the entrance to the worship space should be given special and careful study. The entrance is the public “face” of the worship space. It must be sufficiently sized, specially designed, important and well located to achieve the appropriate prominence. Frequently, this means a very large door. If this door is too large to be used for entry other than for entrance for major services, then smaller doors or door should be included as well, sometimes within the larger door. Nothing diminishes a religious structure more than an ordinary and ordinary sized door. The importance of the entrance is frequently emphasized with a flight of steps, elevating the entrance and religious structure as well, and giving a processional prominence to the entrance sequence. Although this device can be powerful, the accessibility of the physically challenged must also be considered, and this consideration frequently discourages the use of a grand stair at the entrance.

Social Hall

In addition to the worship space and its ancillary components, a religious complex generally includes other functions as well. The social hall is a major function, frequently the same size as the worship space. This is the area where people congregate after the services for conversation and coffee. It is also frequently used for large meetings or assemblies of the religious members. Sometimes it is used for dramatic productions, either by the specific religious group or by neighborhood groups and has a stage or raised platform for such events. Sometimes it is used as an basketball court or half court.

This space must be considered with respect to some of the considerations mentioned above for the worship space – lighting, acoustics, and a sufficient height to accommodate crowds of people, though of course this space should be far less grand than the worship space.

The social hall is frequently used by neighborhood groups, as noted above, as well as the religious group. Consequently, an entrance accessible to a public way and separate from any entrance directly from the worship space should be included.

Another function of the social hall is frequently large meals for the religious group, and for this function, a storage area for the seats, tables and dinnerware must be included. Sometimes, the meals are catered, in which case a kitchen is not required, but many religious institutions prefer to have their own kitchens. Not only do they serve the large meals, but they can also prepare food for the homeless, an service increasingly provided by religious institutions. The kitchen will be a commercial kitchen and will have to conform to the health regulations of the governing authorities concerning these types of kitchens.

The connection between the worship space and the social hall needs careful consideration. The flow after a service is from the worship space to the narthex or entrance/exit from the worship space, where the minister can greet the participants and they can meet briefly among themselves, to the social hall. This flow should be reasonably direct. If the social hall is located adjacent to the rear of the worship space, the participants may flow out of rear doors directly to the social hall instead of being greeted by the minister and initially mixing with the other participants. The same sort of short circuit would result if there were a connection from the worship space to the social hall in front of the narthex. This kind of circulation should be avoided.


The administration space is generally the most frequently visited space during the week. This is the area where the secretaries, business manager, ministers and assistant ministers and other administrative staff all will have their offices. A conference room is generally included, and this room can be used by the members of the religious community for meetings as well, particularly during the evening hours when the administration is not at work. The administration area should have a secretary prominently located at the entrance who acts as a check in point and information center. First time visitors should not have to wander around a series of offices to figure out where or who they wish to see.

The administration area is best attached to the worship area; visits to the worship area are sometime required by the administration for one reason or another. The administration can, however, be in a separate building. There must be a public entrance to the administration area. This entrance should not be so prominent as to compete with the main entrance to the worship space, but also prominent enough so that first time visitors will clearly know where to go. Frequently, if the entrance to the administrative space is not evident, first time visitors will attempt to enter at the entrance to the worship space, which is frequently locked. This kind of confusion should be avoided.


Classrooms are another function of many religious complexes. They are used for study and discussion, frequently before and/or after the service as part of the whole experience. Larger religious groups will frequently divide the classrooms into age groups – children, teenagers and adults. These groups of classrooms should have a separate identity and clear circulation. They should not be scattered around the complex wherever additional space is available; this is confusing. They too should ideally have direct access to the worship space, as those in the discussion groups will generally be going and/or coming directly from the service. They can, of course, be in separate buildings as well.

Since the classrooms are frequently used by the religious institution only in conjunction with the weekly service, or on one evening a week in addition, they remain vacant the majority of the time. They can, and frequently are, consequently rented out to school groups for use during the week days. Sometimes the religious institution itself will run a school in these classrooms, using the school not only to help with income, but also as an outreach to potential new participants. It is for this reason that the classrooms must be located in a coherent area with its own identity. If the classrooms are used by schools during the week, the social hall may be used as a dining hall and/or a gymnasium.

Both because the members of the religious institution may be using the classrooms when the worship space is not in use and closed, such as during evening hours, and because schools may use the classrooms, it is important that the classrooms have a clear separate entrance easily accessible to the public way. Such an entrance will increase the identity of the group of classrooms, which is especially important for the schools which may be using the space.


Another function in the complex is sometimes a nursery. This is where the very young children are put during the service, so as not to disturb the service and to free their parents to participate more attentively in the service. Different religious groups have different attitudes about including very young children in the services. Some do not object and in fact encourage very young children to be at the services as an expression of the family. But others find it distracting and prefer to provide a separate area where the very young children may stay during the services.

This area should definitely be linked to the worship space, as the parents will be bringing and picking up their very young children here both before and after the service. This space may be one or a series of classroom like rooms, and like the classrooms for the older members, will be vacant during the week. Again, like the classrooms for the older members, these rooms can also be used as a school during the week. They are particularly appropriate for a pre-school, as they will have children sized toilets and washrooms and children scaled furniture as part of their function for the religious institution during services. Just as the classrooms require a separate entrance, so will the nursery so that it can be used as a school and so that parents may enter directly into the nursery to drop off their very young children before proceeding to the worship space.

Choir Practice

Other functions in the religious complex can include an area for the choir to practice and store their robes and music books. If there is a choir master, he or she would have an office in this space. Because this function is relatively small compared to the other function listed above, it is often grouped with one of them, such as the administration or the social hall. It can also be organized with one of the groups of classrooms.

Organization of the Complex

Once all of the different functions of the religious institution are defined and well understood, there remains the significant problem of how to link them together. One way to articulate and organize the different functions is to house each one in a separate building. This arrangement has the advantage of permitting the growth of each function independently of the growth of the other functions. An additional advantage is that the worship space stands free and uncluttered by the other functions. But this arrangement will never add up to a unified complex; instead it will inevitably appear as a group of independent structures, much like a camp. Consequently, it will never have the powerful impact of a unified complex. In addition, the direct relationships between the different functions will be more tenuous than is appropriate and will have to be made by going outdoors.

Another method of organizing these functions is along a corridor or spine, off of which the different functions are arranged with their own corridor system. In addition to the advantage of permitting each function to grow independently, just as the individual building scheme described above, this has the advantage of providing a clear, strong system of tying all of the functions together. If the spine or major corridor is curved or otherwise given a shape other than a straight line, perhaps in relation to the site contours or shape, the monotony of the straight, bowling alley corridor can be avoided. The worship space can be located at the head of the spine, giving it the prominence it deserves. This is the arrangement of many airports with their long corridors tying all of the different airlines and gates together. But this arrangement inevitably shares the same problem as the airport arrangement, namely sprawl. A compact, and consequently more commanding complex will never be achieved. In addition, just as in an airport, the most important element becomes the spine, off of which the other functions radiate and become secondary. This is not appropriate for religious institutions. And finally, the spine, because of the inevitable area which it requires to reach all of the functions, becomes expensive to construct.

The courtyard is another plan for organizing the complex, with the worship space at the end, dominating the court, as it should. If the functions are connected around the courtyard with an enclosed portico, the courtyard arrangement becomes a variant of the spine scheme, with a U shaped or O shaped spine. With such a shape, it is naturally more compact and can begin to assume the visual coherence of a more imposing complex. The court itself can become a positive organizing element. The courtyard and its variations can provide a promising organizing diagram. It is of interest to note that a variation of the courtyard scheme described above was the organizing diagram for historical Christian church complexes, with their cloisters forming a courtyard against the side of the worship space.

Vertical organization is another diagram with some promise. This is frequently used for organizing the worship space with the social hall, with the social hall in the basement below the worship space. Since the two are the same size to accommodate the same size group, this works well. Other functions may be stacked on top of each other, though this diagram does not allow the clear articulation of one function from another. Classrooms stacked above the social hall, for instance, do not provide a separate identity for the group of classrooms, making their use as a school somewhat more difficult.

One of the more important and sometimes difficult connections to make in organizing the different functions of a religious complex is the connection of the worship space to the other functions. In general, connecting them through the narthex can work well. Connecting them at other points in the worship space, such as in the rear or through the sacristy can make these functions appear to be using a demeaning back door entrance.

One method of tying all of these functions together and sorting out the circulation is to provide another space, a knuckle, where the circulation for all of the functions come together. This knuckle then becomes the entrance to and the organizing element for the entire complex. The administrative secretary is placed at the knuckle to direct any visitors not only to the proper administrative office, but also to the other areas of the complex.

Some complexes have grown over time, adding functions to the worship space years after the worship space has been in use. In general, these additions are not successful. Often, because of the pre existing arrangement of the worship space, it is particularly difficult to link the other functions appropriately into a complex; the different functions become poorly linked to each other and to the worship space. In addition, the complex frequently ends up with a haphazard hodge podge appearance with a confusion of different levels, different circulation corridors, different styles and poorly defined functional areas. Bringing order to these complexes is a challenge


One of the most vexing problems a religious complex must confront is parking. The required parking lot must be enormous to accommodate all of the participants. And if there are several services and the social hour of one overlaps the service of another, then an even larger parking lot will be required. A religious complex viewed from the street behind a sea of asphalt is an unfortunate way to present the structure.

There are many problems with the parking. One obvious issue is the amount of asphalt which must be provided. This sea of asphalt will not enhance the religious structure. There are several methods of mitigating the problem of the asphalt sea. The lot can be heavily planted and bermed, though this rarely transforms a large parking area properly. A single lot can more successfully be broken up into smaller lots ringed with trees or berms to hide the asphalt and cars.

Parking can be organized on a grass field, depending on the soil and moisture conditions. Since the parked car remains on the grass area for only several hours a week, the grass is not necessarily damaged or the earth rutted. In addition, there are several systems of earth stabilization, such as grass pavers and loose plastic mats which can be driven into the turf, which can make the grass areas more resistant to the wear which the weekly influx of cars might impose. Draining the area with sub surface drainage pipes will help keep the turf dry and tough. Different kinds of grass, such as Bermuda grass, are more resistant to wear. But even without these stabilization methods, parking for brief periods of time can work well.

Another method of dealing with the sea of asphalt is to locate the parking some distance from the complex and separate the areas with a screen of trees. The parking should also be shielded from the road as well so that the image of the complex is not compromised by the parking lot. If kept close enough, this diagram will require only a brief, acceptable walk to the complex entrance. The walk itself can be well landscaped with trees, shrubs and even water elements and bridges to create a transition to the worship space with an appropriate separation time and space from the bustle of the rest of the world. If the walk becomes too long, buses may be used to transport the people.

Locating the parking behind the complex and away from the street has significant problems, though it does hide the parking from the street. Primarily, if the parking is behind the structure, people will inevitably enter and leave the worship space through the rear doors. This is an inelegant method of entering and leaving such a space. If classrooms are attached behind the worship space, as they sometimes are, the entrance sequence becomes even worse, where the participants begin in a parking lot, enter the complex through a school door, traverse a school corridor and then enter the worship space through the back door. If all of the participants enter in this manner, the grand front entrance and front façade of the worship space become meaningless.

If there is another institution close to the religious institution with its own parking lot, which is not used during the day of the religious service, then another method of reducing or even eliminating the sea of asphalt in front of the complex is to arrange with the other institution to use its lot. This is commonly done, and in general at no cost to the religious institutions.

Another method which should not be overlooked and is sometimes possible is to use the public street for parallel parking. If parking is prohibited on the public street, sometimes the local authorities can be convinced to permit parking only on the days when the religious services are held. Parking on both sides of a public street for 1000 feet in both directions from the complex can absorb 160 cars. A 1000 foot walk should take four minutes so that an average of two minutes would be required to walk to the complex in such a situation.

If the complex is approached with a long driveway, then the same system of parallel parking can be used along the driveway to absorb a large number of cars. The Washington Cathedral in Washington DC has such a system and uses it exclusively along with street parking, with no parking lots or borrowed parking, to accommodate a very large number of participants who attend the church each Sunday.

The advantage of parallel parking is that a driveway which accommodates parallel parking, once the cars leave, does not look like a parking lot, but like a driveway. If the same driveway were widened and arranged to receive perpendicular parking, it would look like a parking lot once the cars were removed, since it would have the same dimensions as a parking lot. By the same token, cars parallel parked along a driveway do not appear to be in a parking lot, while cars parked perpendicular to the driveway create a definite parking lot full of cars.

It is interesting to note that religious complexes in urban situations, although they usually have no or only very limited parking, seem to have little problem with this. Perhaps it is because they are sometimes located in neighborhoods where at least a certain number of people walk to the services, but this is not always the case. Street parking, of course, absorbs the rest of the cars, even though the streets are frequently almost full of parked cars from the neighborhood. It remains somewhat of a mystery as to how this is achieved.

Aesthetic Concerns

The principal aesthetic challenge in creating a modern structure for a religious institution is to have the structure look like a religious institution. The vocabulary of modern architecture is often ill suited to the aesthetic challenges of religious structures. Modern churches, mosques, temples and synagogues all too often end up looking less than religious in character. Even though the Architectural statement may be bold and striking, it frequently does not look religious. Sometimes, it is only a cross or some other religious symbol which hints that the structure is a religious building. If, in addition, the parking lot is poorly conceived so that the structure is placed in the middle of a sea of asphalt, the result can be very disappointing indeed.

Although there are some religious structures which utilize an entirely “modern” vocabulary and are at the same time successful in evoking the religious, stylistic references to historical religious architecture appropriate to the denomination frequently help identify the structure as not only religious, but also as part of the tradition of the specific denomination. The integration of these elements into a modern structure is not easy and can often become kitsch or overtly additive. How closely to borrow from the historical tradition and still remain fresh and up to date is a critical and difficult problem for the Architect.

One of the most difficult challenges in this regard for an Architect is to design a Jewish temple or Synagogue. Understandably, the members wish to have a structure which does not look like a church. This is not easy to accomplish, since the functions of the worship space and its ancillary activities are nearly identical to those of a church, and since historically, the synagogue or temple has never developed a distinctive architecture of its own from which to borrow or to which to refer. Placing a Star of David over the entrance to a building which otherwise looks like a church does not suffice.

Other religious groups are more fortunate in having strong and distinctive historical architectural traditions. The traditional mosque, with its minarets, its distinctive geometry, its courts, its ivans and its floral and calligraphic decorative patterns presents strong traditional architecture to which the modern Architect may refer and from which he may borrow to create a structure which looks distinctly like a place of worship for Moslems.

Different Christian traditions have a large number of historical architectural traditions upon which to draw. The Gothic Cathedral, the classic facades of Christopher Wren, the simple barn like structures of the early American Congregational and Presbyterian traditions, all with their bell towers and steeples, and with their distinctive decorations or lack thereof, present strong potent images to which the Architect may successfully refer in creating a modern church.

The opposing challenge for an Architect who refers to historical tradition in creating the religious structure is to avoid making the structure look “too” traditional or too much of a copy. Although the traditional reproduction is the model for many successful, well loved and respected religious structures – one only need consider the many “gothic” churches and cathedrals constructed 100 years ago – this direction is fraught with problems. To begin with, properly done reproductions, particularly gothic reproductions, are prohibitively expensive today, and watered down reproductions often look like cheap imitations, which of course they are. Then there is the issue of making the structure look fresh and contemporary, something which the reproduction will never achieve. There is also the related problem of Disney. Ever since the creation of Disneylands with their reproduction castles and so forth, the reproduction church structure has had to contend with its inevitable comparison to structures in these theme parks. No one wants their church, synagogue or mosque to be thought of as a Disneyesque creation. A reproduction structure can avoid looking like a Disney creation by remaining sober and eschewing the decorative fillips which inhabit much of Disney’s creations. The result, however, can frequently be boring, monotonous and dull.


The creation of a religious complex is not a simple matter. The design can be complicated by the fact that all the members of the particular religious community expect to be heard concerning what the structure will look like. The result, however, can and ought to be immensely satisfying. The structure is frequently the most important and visible building in a community. It is the center not only of the religious life of the religious community, but also frequently of their social life as well. Architecturally, the building is likely to be the most carefully and conscientiously designed structure in the community, looked and commented upon as an icon and symbol of that neighborhood and its people.

It can be said that the history of Architecture is the history of religious structures, at least until comparatively recently. From the advent of history, the religious structure has characterized its people and been its defining architecture. The temples and pyramids of Egypt, the temples of Greece and Rome and the cathedrals of Europe are all defining monuments of their societies and of the architecture of the times. The design of the contemporary religious structure must proceed with all of the care, consideration and knowledge which this precedent requires.