From the ornate timber details of ancient Buddhist temples in Japan to the sublime stained-glass windows of French cathedrals, religion has long inspired ambitious and extraordinary design beyond almost any other architectural typology. This is far from surprising, considering that religious buildings are not only theologically significant, but also act as community hubs, often becoming a vital civic landmark for those living in both rural and urban environments.
Given this inherent cultural and civic prominence, church designers often strive for iconicity, adopting distinctive forms on all scales, from the smallest of chapels to the most epic cathedrals. When you combine this desire for landmark creation with a penchant for contemporary design and a dramatic natural context, the results can be breathtaking — and these key ingredients are ever-present across Scandinavia and neighboring Nordic countries.
LINK Arkitektur’s striking Ålgård Church in Norway, pictured above, is a perfect example. Completed earlier in 2015, this ecclesiastical building is characterized by a swooping, wing-like roof, a modern iteration of the traditional church vault that unites nave, choir, and steeple in a single sweeping form. The multipurpose structure, which includes a classroom, café, and office, as well as the main church hall, illustrates how traditional functionality and religious symbolism can be seamlessly integrated into a highly contemporary design.
Here are eight more exemplary cathedrals, churches, and chapels across the Nordic countries that possess both religious reverence and stylish sophistication, symptomatic of this region’s knack for merging traditional typologies with the magic of modernism.
Cathedral of the Northern Light by Schmidt/Hammer/Lassen Architects, Alta, Norway
With its ascending helical form, shimmering titanium façade, and 154-foot-high belfry, Alta’s curvaceous cathedral is the epitome of iconic ecclesiastical architecture — and it doubles up as a perfect vantage point for one of the most dramatic natural phenomena on the planet.
Kuokkala Church by Oopeaa Office for Peripheral Architecture, Jyväskylä, Finland
This church in central Finland was designed as a distinctive focal point for the local community. A cool material palette of Spanish slate and Finnish granite adorns the external surfaces, while copper and timber cladding lend the entrances and interior a warm, welcoming air.
Community Church Knarvik by Reiulf Ramstad Architects, Knarvik, Norway
The A+Award-winning Community Church Knarvik — designed by Firm of the Year, Reiulf Ramstad Architects — is a sculptural timber beacon defined by angular planes that echo the surrounding mountains.
Kärsämäki Church by Oopeaa Office for Peripheral Architecture, Kärsämäki, Finland
Oopeaa’s small, shingle-clad church in Kärsämäki is an exhibition in Nordic minimalism. A single lantern positioned at the summit of the structure acts as a focal point and is framed by handcrafted timber detailing based on traditional construction techniques.
Froeyland Orstad Church by LINK Arkitektur, Rogaland, Norway
Designed by the same firm behind Ålgård Church, this ecclesiastical building is similarly modern in style, bearing a strong connection to the surrounding scenery. Its form is inspired by the hills and planes of the region, and its green roof forms an extension of the natural landscape.
Jullas Chapel by Haroma and Partners, Kaarina, Finland
This small chapel in rural Finland is defined by a textured, copper-clad arch, creating a strong sculptural form upon the hillside and providing an intimate space for prayer and reflection within.
Chapel of St. Lawrence by Avanto Architects, Vantaa, Finland
The Chapel of St. Lawrence was designed with greater restraint and subtlety than usual in order for the old medieval church in Vantaa to remain the primary focal point of the village. A material palette of granite, white render, and deep-green copper lends the interior a calm, serene atmosphere for contemplation.
Bonus: Church in Våler by Studio Aah, Våler, Norway
Unbuilt but bursting with atmospheric qualities, this vision for a new church in eastern Norway is formed from a cluster of timber-clad pyramidal towers, playing off the existing chapel and the towering pine trees surrounding the site.
The Angry Architect