A church, at its core, is a congregation of the faithful, whether it is a dozen worshippers gathering to pray underneath a thatched roof, or frescoed ceilings of a grand cathedral. Drawing in people of dogma, those seeking solace from life, and curious ones to witness the house of God, churches are one of the truest manifestations of human skills and creativity, a conviction of something larger than us. Religious architecture, expressly cathedrals and chapels, have evolved over millennia as centres of community to politically-charged power institutions to vacant skins of glory.
With a striking series of photographs called Sacred Spaces that capture the grand interiors of over 40 modernist churches across France, Germany, Denmark, Japan and more, Paris-based photographer Thibaud Poirier unearths how the architecture of these holy edifices have evolved across cities, and the elements that unite them. As a youngster, Poirier travelled and lived across Buenos Aires, Houston, Montréal and Tokyo, igniting his interest in interiors and architecture. Post studying engineering and a short stint in consulting, he reconnected with his passion through photography a decade ago, and now has numerous absorbing series documenting astounding interiors of libraries to raw shots of urbanscapes.
STIR speaks with the 34-year-old French photographer about the airy, minimal and cavernous, brutalist style adopted by modern churches, his approach to architectural photography within the context of Sacred Spaces and how the landscape of modernist churches has transformed over the years.
Jincy Iype (JI): Sacred Spaces focuses on modernist churches around the world - please elaborate on how this series came about, and what your understanding is of these “modern” sacral institutions.
Thibaud Poirier (TP): In any European city, churches remain some of the most visited monuments, because of their history and traditions of faith and humanity, the time and effort it took to build them, and what their architecture tells us of the artistic and spiritual current of that time.
When I first discovered this newer style of churches, I was fascinated by the displayed creativity, and the vision of the architects who brought a new wave of inspiration in religious buildings, which are usually conservative in shape and being. The works of August Perret, John Pawson, Guillaume Gillet and Gottfried Bohm, among many others, made me want to create a photography series in their honour, and that is how Sacred Spaces took birth.
The modern church is a delicate institution; under siege from countering theologies, philosophies and the super speed of daily life, it must at once withstand the constant tempest of change while remaining anchored to tradition and Christianity. The way the most long-standing bodies have done this is by finding a balance: deep roots that touch the core of humanity and yet a flexible reed likeability to bend and sway with the tensions of modernity.
Architecturally, I was inspired by the astounding variety of church designs. There are only but a few physical signs that bind them together: a visual focal point, usually but not always, a cross-shaped plan, rows of seating trained on the visual cue that is the altar, and a space clearly designed to spark wonder, reflection, meditation and devotion.
I employ a centrally framed focal point throughout the series, a choice which made it easier to capture the underscoring similarity of elements such as the seating facing the altar and the pulpit, in tandem with displaying the complementary nuances of the interiors such as choice of materials and how they dress the soaring ceilings and repeated geometry of the place, as well as colour palettes.
JI: From the lens of a photographer, what are the tangible features that make these spaces “sacred”?
TP: All churches can be considered sacred, essentially. You know that grounding feeling of an empty church brought forth by silence, choreographed light and a lingering smell of incense or even a filled congregation, with the sounds of chiming bells and resounding hymns by the choir – that sensation is felt collectively.
However, my curated selection for this series is purely architectural and aesthetical. The generous symmetry and cinematic perspective remain perpetually, my main criteria to capture these spaces, for the best visual impact.
The creativity and minimalist setting of contemporary architecture, the use of new materials in current times, such as timber and concrete, has made way for a wider range of new shapes and plans. I wanted to show how a space with a similar function could be interpreted so differently geographically and across a century.
JI: Having travelled across countries and continents, what are some features that underscore these spaces, because understandably, each church must be unique to its location and history?
TP: I am a fan of brutalist architecture, which is characterised by minimalist concrete constructions and an onslaught of grey. French architects like August Perret and Guillaume Gillet were pioneers in the use of new modern materials in the 50s. These are spaces that were designed to repeatedly draw one in, and induce long-lasting relationships. Ranging from a cosy, monk-like, modest chapel to elaborate, and ethereal cathedrals with vaulted archways stretching to the heavens, the variety of these worship spaces are as diverse as it is personal.
In this series, I wanted to capture a few of the most exceptional sacred spaces, to show how they interpret the institution stylistically and concretely shape radically different interiors for people to worship.
And yet despite their great stylistic differences, the glue between these churches remains invisible to the human eye yet vibrates within each of us: the emotional state created while one is present. The sense of belonging.
JI: How do you think the landscape of modernist churches has changed over the years?
TP: As a building it reflects the societal changes of the 20th century Church, which is part of a vast movement of reflection on the adaptation of the liturgy to modern times. The traditional form of the Latin cross was abandoned in favour of simpler spaces, where all the faithful could see the priest and which allowed for better participation by the congregation.
The second half of the 20th century saw an increase in the number of churches built. The context of the creation of this period is of course marked by the evolution of the liturgy and the culmination of the movement of reform of the liturgy at the time of the Second Vatican Council. The concept of “form follows function” and new modern building materials were pillars of this new sacred architecture.
JI: From urban landscapes to the insides of libraries and churches – what unites all your series?
TP: My passion for architecture, simply. I have mostly lived in cities as a kid and architectural photography follows certain rules (respect of perspective, lighting, image definition, and more). Such pictures require a slower and more methodical process which suits me very well. Plus, I get to travel and broaden perspectives.
JI: If you were to select background music for Sacred Spaces, what would it be?
TP: I like electronic music, so it would be Ayaya by Bicep, I really like their tracks and find this one has a religious touch.
JI: If Sacred Spaces were to be turned into a photo book, which image would grace the cover and why?
TP: The Notre Dame de Royan church. My favourite churches from this series are the ones from the 50s and 60s. This church was built in 1958 by French architect Guillaume Gillet, who used concrete in a very innovative way for that time. The shape and impressive size make it one of the most beautiful and dramatic churches I have had the chance to visit.
JI: How would you describe the essence of your artistic expression?
TP: I usually have trouble answering these questions but I will try! My work intends to share my love for architecture with serene and timeless images of some of the most beautiful monuments ever built.
JI: What is the one thing you look for before settling on a frame to photograph? Is your process more organic (a lot of raw shots), or is it specific?
TP: I do a lot of research on the internet to find interesting buildings (photo search on google, Instagram, google maps and street views…). When I am on location I'll usually take some time to appreciate the architecture and find interesting compositions. Afterwards, I'll set up my tripod and start shooting. Its also quite intuitive, which is harder to encapsulate in words.
JI: Who and what inspires you, and in turn inspires these series?
TP: I am influenced by architecture and design in general, cinema and the work of other proficient photographers. Candida Hoffer's interiors or Hiroshi Sugimoto's theatres inspired my series on modern libraries and churches. I also love the work of Thomas Struth, Edward Burtynsky, Michael Wolf, Joel Sternfeld and Mitch Epstein.