Many Italian churches have become hallowed monuments, cherished for their beauty, but seldom used for worship. Museums have supplanted cathedrals as the principal locus of uplift, and sports have displaced religion as the thread that binds strangers together. Few contemporary architects of significance are impelled by faith to create new churches, but the aesthetic challenge is irresistible. The program allows a wide range of expression and draws on a two-thousand-year legacy. To a far greater degree than other building types, a church aspires to the eternal. It’s an exercise in the sublime, and the interplay of structure, space, and light. Some of the greatest buildings of our secular age, from Ronchamp to Peter Zumthor’s chapels and SOM’s Cathedral of Christ the Light are consecrated to Catholicism, even as the institution loses ground to a diversity of irrational beliefs. Matching these achievements is the parish church of San Paolo in the Umbrian town of Foligno, an austere masterpiece by the Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas Studio. When they won the competition in 2001, the architects were offered a site near the earthquake-ravaged historic core but they chose to build on the western edge, in a developing neighborhood, where everything was new and the building would stand out as a distinctive object in the landscape. Approaching from the main road to the north, it appears as an impenetrable cube of pale poured concrete, linked to a long low block of parish offices and the priest’s house by a short span of frosted glass. The base of the block is recessed above the ground on three sides to lighten its mass, and five angular openings are cut into the east and west facades. To the south, a piazza that will serve as a gathering place for residents slopes gently up to a broad band of clear glass, with a cross marking the point of entry. The interior is a box within a box. An aedicula of lightweight concrete on a steel frame is suspended from structural beams in the roof to hover above the floor at the height of 3 m. A peripheral skylight illuminates the interstitial space and the five angular light cannons that double as structural beams to east and west. The layering and compression of space within the vertical planes, and the play of forms in between achieves a sculptural richness with the simplest of means. From the center of the nave, there is a vertical thrust to a trinity of rectangular skylights. The deep reveals diffuse light and evoke clouds floating across the walls, besides offering glimpses of the sky. At the periphery, light models the beams and subtly emphasizes the stone blocks of the altar, pulpit, and font. It washes over the outer walls, which are smooth above, darker and rough-textured below. The inner wall suggests an ambulatory, but there is no axis to direct one across the almost square plan. Every element is carefully integrated within the whole, and there are none of the jarring notes that so often mar the conjunction of reductive architecture and old patterns of use. The Fuksas studio designed the plain oak benches, the twelve suspended light pedants containing speakers whose angularity echoes the window openings, and the slender pedestal speakers ranged around the outer walls. Mimmo Paladino abstracted the stations of the cross in small iron sculptures along the side walls. What reads as a translucent glass bridge from the outside is a devotional chapel, bathed in soft light, with a baroque altar and prie-dieu to comfort traditionalists. As with Le Corbusier’s three religious commissions, the church was made possible by an exceptional client - a high-level official in the Vatican hierarchy. The competition set a cost limit of six million euros; Fuksas brought it in for three and a half, and that gave him more freedom to realize his vision. Each contender in the competition was assigned a liturgical advisor. “The sister told me that I was going against all the principles of her faith and we parted ways, but the bishops loved the design,” says Fuksas, laughing at the memory. “I’m a fanatic for detail and insisted that outer wall be raised 80 cm from the ground. That was a challenge to the engineers and it increased the cost since we had to add extra footings. Despite its apparent simplicity, the structure is quite complex”. It’s instructive to compare this numinous, precisely demarcated space with that of Saint-Pierre at Firminy, in central France, which was conceived by Le Corbusier and completed by his protégé, José Oubrerie, forty-five years after its inception. There, a single volume is shaped by a truncated cone, and dramatically lit from colored slots to the rear and a constellation of round openings behind the altar. The chiaroscuro of light and shade and the tiers of seating give it a theatrical quality, and it will be used as a performance space, with services to be held only at Christmas and Easter. By contrast, Fuksas - whose manner and profile resemble one of the nobler Roman emperors - created a space that has equal appeal to the devout and artistic free thinkers like himself, as do all great churches. The master of such megastructures, as the undulating glass concourse of the Milan Fiera and the vast carapace of Shenzen Airport, has created a modestly scaled interior of mystery and delight.