Quiet chapels for contemplation: The Vatican’s first ever pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture

Across its history the Catholic Church has funded centuries worth of lavish architecture across Europe and the world. Nowadays however, the pairing of Church and contemporary architecture appears to be a little incongruous at first. We tend to think of the Vatican as clutching to its old relics, safely at a distance from the scene of contemporary art and culture. Which is why it came as a surprise when the Vatican was announced to be part of the Venice Biennale of Architecture this year. The debut of the Vatican pavilion is just one startling part of a campaign spearheaded by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi who earlier this year brought the Church hurtling into the modern world with the Met exhibition: Heavenly Bodies and its associated, risqué Met Gala.

Sean Godsell pavilion chapel
Sean Godsell’s ‘A dynamic entity capable of surviving thousands of kilometres away’. Image credit: Alessandra Chemollo

Although traditionally Catholic in its concept – the Vatican’s pavilion centres around the design of ten chapels – it offers a novelty for the Architecture Biennale through exhibiting completed and built designs. Whereas the majority of the pavilions offer sketches and renderings of designs, the Vatican’s pavilion offers visitors the opportunity to explore the completed structures themselves, nestled in the secluded woodland of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. The cardinal has labelled it a ‘pilgrimage’ for believers and non-believers alike, or a path for all who wish to rediscover beauty, silence, the interior and transcendent voice, the human fraternity of being together in the assembly of people, and the loneliness of the woodland where one can experience the rustle of nature, which is like a cosmic temple.” Ravasi has also been vocal about his dislike of what he considers to be the ugliness of modern church architecture thus the pavilion is likely to be a relief in its divergence from the norm of contemporary religious architecture.


Flores Prat pavilion chapel biennale
Flores Prat’s ‘The Morning Chapel’. Image credit: Alessandra Chemollo
 As envisaged by the curator, himself a non-believer and past director of the Architecture Biennale itself, academic Professor Dal Co, ten architects were approached to design chapels. They were given the abstract natural setting and the specific model of the “Woodland Chapel” (1920) by Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund as a guide and asked to include two liturgical elements – a pulpit and an altar. The rest, however, was up to them. Gunnar Asplund’s famous chapel, located in the Cemetery of Stockholm, has long been celebrated for its artful simplicity in embracing its surroundings to rework the form of religious architecture. The 11th chapel in the pavilion is in fact the Asplund Pavilion which contains drawings and information on the Woodland Chapel so as to orientate visitors to the task architects were given.

The ten resulting chapels from architects around the world, including big names and Pritzker prize winners Norman Foster and Eduardo Suoto de Moura, reveal diverse practices and materials whilst also reflecting differing geographies and cultures.

Sean Godsell chapel pavilion for the Bienale
Sean Godsell’s ‘A dynamic entity capable of surviving thousands of kilometres away’. Image Credit: Alessandra Chemollo

The results vary in their success, with some chapels such as that of the Australian Sean Godsell, forcing their designs onto the natural setting with a little too much force. Unfortunately whilst solid in its conceptualisation of a transportable structure the result appears more like an outdoor barbeque setting than a contemplative space. Although, once inside the long metallic box, the framing of the sky ala James Turrell is a nice touch.

Norman Foster’s design on the other hand, a lightly framed wooden tent-like chapel based on three crosses, embraces materials that complement the setting. A striking element is his use of dappled light. The wooden skeleton of the chapel has jasmine grown through it so as to allow dappled sunlight to filter into the angles of the space. The design also gives its visitors a focal point of reflection through its orientation and framing of the sea beyond the trees.

Which is not to say the designs are necessarily at their most successful when integrating the natural setting into the design, some of the designs like the inspiration of the “Woodland Chapel” itself interestingly close off a space apart from their surroundings. This enclosure and its consequent use of the natural light so too allows a focal point for contemplation.

Smiljan Radic pavilion chapel biennale
Smiljan Radic’s ‘A chapel as a roadside shrine’. Image credit: Alessandra Chemollo

Such is the case with Chilean Architect Smiljan Radic’s design which was inspired by roadside shrines. A concrete cylinder with an open roof, the structure allows lone visitors a moment of solitude. Likewise, Japanese architect Teronobu Fujimori’s offering perhaps most closely takes to heart the inspiration of the Woodland Chapel. With an exterior of charcoal timber it, like the Woodland Chapel, attempts to seamlessly fit with its surroundings, nestling as it does in the shadows of the trees. And yet when the visitor squeezes themselves through the narrow doorway they are greeted with a light filled white space. The interior’s white plaster is offset by abstract shapes in block colours which are reminiscent of stained glass windows and a central motif of a cross, surrounded by charcoal timber once more becomes the focal point for contemplation. 

Terunobo Fujimori Chapel pavilion patroned by the Vatican
Terunobo Fujimori’s ‘Cross Chapel’. Image credit: Alessandra Chemollo
Terunobo Fujimori’s ‘Cross Chapel’ biennale pavilion
Terunobo Fujimori’s ‘Cross Chapel’. Image credit: Alessandra Chemollo

Other designs such as Carla Juaçaba’s chapel are more abstract, being made up simply of four steel beams of 8 meters-long, two of which compose a bench and the other two a cross. The remarkable touch of the design is its use of reflection, as the beams mirror the surroundings, meaning the structure can appear to disappear into the setting or can glow red with the sunset. Although not included in their brief, Juaçaba’s design is one of several that explicitly include images of the cross.

Carla Juaçaba chapel pavillion biennale
Carla Juaçaba’s ‘A bench and cross’. Image Credit: Alessandra Chemollo

Participating architect Norman Foster, of Gherkin fame, reflected on his own involvement “my emphasis as an architect has always been about lifestyle, quality of life, issues of the spirit alongside material needs. It is therefore perhaps no surprise that I was attracted by the idea of doing a small chapel – the essence of shelter and contemplation.

Norman Foster chapel biennale
Norman Foster’s ‘Crosses morphed into a Tensegrity Structure’. Image credit: Foster and Partners

Foster’s attraction to the project points to the value of the Holy See’s contribution and consequent collaboration with contemporary architects. It offers the rare opportunity for contemporary architectural design to focus on contemplative, quiet public spaces. Putting aside beliefs, spaces for reflection will continue to be valuable and precious. And as Foster noted simply “architecture needs patrons.” The Vatican’s patronage in this instance allows architects and visitors alike a reprieve and a chance at contemplation. Particularly in the overcrowded, heaving city of Venice, these spaces are much needed.

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