Usually, churches aren’t hard to spot, and often their designs seem to follow quite traditional and recognizable architectural templates. Having said that, in the past century some congregations and church leaders have chosen to push the aesthetic limits of church architecture and design.
Take the following ten unusual church buildings, which are all refreshingly different, unconventional, and both visually and stylistically captivating. Although each one is unique – different in its own way – all ten challenge conventions and push the boundaries of what a church should look like. Read on to find out more about these fascinating places of worship and the architects behind them.
10. Harajuku Church – Tokyo, Japan
The original Harajuku Church was completed in 1904, but it had to be rebuilt after World War II. Over half a century later, it was discovered that the structure was vulnerable to earthquakes. Commercial outlets such as McDonald’s, Starbucks and MUJI would also spring up around it, making it easy to ignore. The congregation decided it was time for something new. Architectural duo Henri Gueydan and Fumiko Kaneko of Ciel Rouge Création designed the new building, which is located at the same site as the old one, in Tokyo’s Aoyama district.
Completed in 2006, the strikingly modern church stands out from the surrounding buildings thanks to its impressive façade, which features tongue-like alcoves. The interior, meanwhile, is made up of sweeping curves, and the building’s expansive windows bathe the church with natural light, for a light and airy feel. Pastor Tsuchihashi said, “The church offers a time and a place for people to be with God in an open atmosphere.”
9. Parish Church of Santa Monica – Rivas-Vaciamadrid, Spain
Madrid-based architectural studio Vicens & Ramos designed the Parish Church of Santa Monica, which is situated in Spain’s Rivas-Vaciamadrid municipality, about 12 miles from the Spanish capital. The building includes two housing areas for priests and spaces for church management and religious education.
The abstract design looks a bit like a hand with a finger pointing up towards the sky, or perhaps an explosion frozen in midair. According to the architects, they wanted to “search ways in which to unite earth and sky, matter and light, the summit of the sacred.” The skylights at the tips of each of the “fingers” soften the digits’ abrupt lines and draw light into the interior. Meanwhile, the inside of the building is noteworthy for its black granite floors, which contrast sharply with the pale walls and ceiling. Contemporary sculptors and artists created artwork and furnishings for the church, which was completed in 2009.
8. Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasilia – Brasilia, Brazil
Known locally as the Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasilia resembles a giant crown. Influential Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer designed the building, which is to be found in Brazil’s federal capital, Brasilia. The only parts of the church that are visible above ground are the roofs of the baptistry and the cathedral, the bell tower, and 16 boomerang-shaped columns that reach towards the sky. And between each column is a triangular shaped section of stained glass. Painted by Marianne Peretti in 1990 and made out of fiberglass, the windows fill the interior with colored light.
Construction of the building began in 1958, and the project was completed in 1960 – although it was not dedicated until 1970. Several sculptures add to the artistic quality of the Catedral, which is visited by around one million people every year.
7. Donau City Church – Vienna, Austria
Donau City Church – also known by its more formal name, Christus, Hoffnung der Welt (“Christ, Hope of the World”) – is situated in the 22nd district of Vienna (Donau City). The exterior is made up of stainless steel plates that change from bright silver to deep purple depending on the light. The dark surface is also perforated with porthole-like windows and textured with stainless steel bolts.
Interestingly, while the exterior of the church appears dense and severe, the inside is quite the opposite. The walls and ceiling are paneled in light-colored birch, and the windows provide light, creating a bright, warm and luminescent atmosphere. Donau City Church was designed by Austrian architect Heinz Tesar and was consecrated by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn on November 26, 2000.
6. Sunset Chapel – Acapulco, Mexico
Located in the city of Acapulco in Guerrero, Mexico, Sunset Chapel sits atop a hill overlooking Acapulco Bay. Tall trees and natural vegetation surround the strikingly unusual structure, creating a picturesque and otherworldly scene. BNKR Architects were commissioned to design the building, which was intended to mimic the gigantic boulders on the nearby hills while incorporating concepts relating to life such as chaos, vulnerability and permanence.
In order to take appropriate advantage of the view – which was blocked by a boulder and some tall trees – the edifice had to be raised by some 16 feet. The base takes up less than half the floor area of the upper story, and a curving stairway leads to the chapel space at the top of the building. The upper floor is framed by vertical columns and illuminated by beautiful light as the sun goes down. Construction of Sunset Chapel was completed in February 2011.
5. St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church – Chicago, USA
St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church is located in Chicago, Illinois. Twelve glass and concrete tubular columns surround the central dome, reflecting the natural light in wonderful hues. Each of the 12 domes represents one of the apostles and is topped with a little cross. The central dome, on the other hand, stands for Jesus Christ and has a larger cross.
Philadelphia-based architect Zenon Mazurkewych designed the building, and construction began in 1975. The church was completed in 1977 and consecrated by Bishop Jaroslav Gabro in May that year. Although the exterior might suggest that the inside is similarly modern looking, in fact it is decorated with frescoes in the Byzantine mode. However, while it may look incredible, not everyone is a fan of the building. A local blog commented that the rich decor clashed with the simple elegance of the design, suggesting a space that isn’t at peace with itself.
4. Thorncrown Chapel – Arkansas, USA
Inspired by its natural setting, Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas looks like an extension of the graceful trees that surround it. Rising 48 feet into the air, the building gives the impression of being a giant open-air chapel, but it’s actually made up of 425 windows – the glass covering an area of more than 6,000 square feet. The structure was built from local timber and features pine cross-tension trusses as well as a flagstone floor.
This chapel was the brainchild of landowner Jim Reed and was designed by architect E. Fay Jones, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Construction was completed in 1980, and Thorncrown Chapel opened on July 10 that year. The building has since been visited by more than six million people and has won a lot of architectural prizes. Most notably, though, in 2000 it was put on the National Register of Historic Places, which is an extremely rare distinction for buildings under 50 years old.
3. Santuario della Madonna Lacrime – Sicily, Italy
Santuario della Madonna Lacrime, known in English as “Our Lady of Tears,” resembles a giant teardrop and is to be found in the city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily. The building, which attracts many pilgrims, soars 243 feet into the sky and was designed by French architects Michel Arnault and Pierre Parat. Construction was completed in 1994. The edifice was created to accommodate a plaster bas-relief plaque of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which reportedly wept human tears from August 29 to September 1,1953. By November of that year, about 300 miraculous healings had been attributed to the plaque.
The interior of the Santuario is a massive space and is surrounded by a series of small chapels. Although architects and websites have criticized the concrete building, inside it is quite striking, and the ceiling is particularly impressive. One online reviewer wrote, “You might get dizzy looking up at the vertical windows stretching skyward to the apex of the roof.”
2. United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel – Colorado, USA
The United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel is situated at the US Air Force Academy base, which lies north of Colorado Springs, Colorado. The structure features 17 spires that rise loftily into the air. Finished in 1963, the building was designed by Chicago-based architect Walter Netsch, who was working for architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merril. The structure consists of aluminum tetrahedrons separated by colored glass window sections. Standing 150 feet high, the chapel is easily visible from a number of miles away and is Colorado’s top manmade attraction.
The main floor section of the structure is dedicated to the Protestant chapel, but a Catholic chapel, a Buddhist room and a Jewish chapel are also housed inside the building. What’s more, the Cadet Chapel also has space for Islamic services. In 1996, this architectural masterpiece was awarded the Twenty-five Year Award, and it was proclaimed a National Historic Landmark in 2004.
1. Cathedral of Maringá – Paraná, Brazil
The Cathedral of Maringá, also known as the Cathedral-Basilica of our Lady of Glory, is located in the city of Maringá, in the Brazilian state of Paraná. The building’s massive spire rises 407 feet into the air, making it the tallest church in South America as well as the 16th tallest church worldwide.
Architect José Augusto Bellucci designed the modernist structure, apparently taking inspiration from the Soviet sputnik satellites. This impressive church took almost 13 years to build and was finally opened in May 1972. The building is made up of two cones, the smaller one sitting inside the larger. Inverted triangular columns within the church are decorated with artwork, while jewel-like beams of light flood the interior via huge triangular sections of stained glass. A 598-step staircase also weaves its way between the two cones, passing through an observatory on the 14th floor, where visitors can enjoy expansive views of the surrounding city.