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Last edited 09 Mar 2021
Wood and spiritual places
Design requirements vary for each of these spiritual spaces, often defined by each religion’s rituals. For example, the layout of Catholic churches often replicate a cross; Sikh temples, known as Gurdwaras, require four entrance doors – the Door of Peace, the Door of Livelihood, the Door of Learning and the Door of Grace; mosques must all feature a prayer room large enough to accommodate the entire male population of the local town or city; and Buddhist temples are designed around symbolising the five elements: fire, air, earth, water and wisdom.
In addition to this, they should be safe and comforting spaces for people to pray or meditate in peace. Wood is renowned for its calming qualities, contributing to a healthy indoor environment and its feeling of warmth, making it ideal for spiritual places.
The use of wood in spiritual places spans thousands of years. The oldest-known wooden sacred space, believed to be the oldest wooden building in the world, is a five-story pagoda in the Hry-ji area of Japan. It’s estimated that the tree used for the centre pillar was felled in 594.
Here in the UK, the world’s oldest wooden church, dating back to 1060, sits in a village near Chelmsford, Essex. Greensted Church, though extended and repaired over time, has kept to its timber roots with some 51 timber planks dating from its original construction.
Another timber marvel is possibly the largest torii in Japan, which stands at 16-metres and marks the Itsukushima Shrine. A torii is a traditional Japanese gate most commonly made from wood, leading to Shinto shrines. This sacred space, carved from Camphor wood in 1168, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Also on the UNESCO list is the Slovakian Roman Catholic Church of St. Francis of Assisi, believed to have been constructed between 1460 and 1480. The red spruce exterior is still in impressive condition despite being more than 500 years old.
And though once prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe, today no wooden synagogues remain standing, largely due to their desecration during World War One and World War Two. Crafted joinery was a key interior feature with elaborately carved bimahs and arks, which contain the Torah scrolls. Joinery like this, often featuring detailed carvings of the Star of St David, has endured and continues to be a highlight in synagogues across the world today.
 Continuing the trend
Wood is a popular building material for spiritual places and played a big part in the construction of the brand-new Cambridge Mosque in England. Constructed using a glulam timber frame, the timbers are interwoven to create an intricate and elegant ceiling feature. With the addition of CLT roof slabs, the new building has been hailed as the world’s first eco-mosque.
Located in London and completed just last year is the award-winning Bushey Cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in the UK. Clinching the RIBA National Award 2018, RIBA East Award 2018 and WAF 2017 Best Completed Religious Building, the design focused around the process of the Jewish funeral, as the faith has no architectural typology. Built using rammed earth and timber, the buildings are low carbon and can be deconstructed when the cemetery needs to be extended in the future. Designed by Waugh Thistleton, the building is intentionally simple and intuitive for those who will come into the building to grieve for their loved ones.
The simplicity of the cemetery is a direct contrast to the Light of Life Church in Seoul, South Korea. A hybrid of materials, yet dominated by timber, the design is a nod to industrial architecture with exposed concrete and pipes in the foyer, leading to a timber haven in the chapel. The Siberian red cedar wood was gifted by an entrepreneur and has been crafted into a breath-taking interior. Timbers are strung from the glass ceiling, giant handprints are carved into the wood and plain wooden pews are situated around a circle holding a simple metal cross. The glass exterior could be mistaken for a modern office building, but instead blends into the mountain and houses a chapel for contemplation and prayer.
Another hidden gem is a mosque constructed solely from wood in an Iranian village near Nishapur. Built in 2000 and named the Wooden Mosque, it is made from walnut and berry tree. Despite the imposing minarets standing 13-metres high, it’s the interior that stuns visitors. Fine joinery adorns the walls, with patterns and verses from the Koran carved into the wood. This is a beautiful place but also practical as it is reported to withstand earthquakes up to eight on the Richter scale.
Completed in 2017, the North London Belarusian Memorial Chapel was designed by Spheron Architects as a place of worship and also a memorial for the victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Many from the Belarusian community had to leave their country, and the beautiful chapel constructed entirely from Douglas Fir is a tribute to the traditional style of Belarus’ churches.
Like buildings intended for worship, meditation spaces require an energy-boosting yet calming environment. Meditation has a strong connection with nature so in addition to plants and essential oils, timber can play a key role in creating a tranquil atmosphere.
In Italy, a mobile pavilion built from stacked timber batons was created to provide visitors to Stelvio National Park with an introspective space to take in the beautiful surroundings of the lake and forest. The design is small in size and allows just enough light through the slatted design.
With its unparalleled ability to offer a sense of calm and beauty in religious and spiritual spaces, wood remains a popular and enduring material of choice for reflection and healing as we look ahead to the new year and beyond.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- 11 things you didn't know about wood.
- A guide to the use of urban timber FB 50.
- Forest Stewardship Council.
- Physical Properties of Wood.
- Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.
- Sustainable timber.
- The differences between hardwood and softwood.
- Timber construction for London.
- Timber frame.
- Timber framed buildings and fire.
- Timber vs wood.
- Types of timber.
- Whole life carbon assessment of timber.
- Wood and educational buildings.
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