2018 Architecture Biennial: Vatican entry
Wind of change from Rome
12. June 2018 | Words: Bettina Krause, Photography: Alessandra Chemollo
Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 10 seconds
Venice boasts more than 150 ecclesiastical buildings already – and now a further eleven have been spawned by the Biennial. This is the first time the Vatican has taken part in the world’s largest architecture event; it contracted ten architects of world renown to erect “Vatican Chapels” on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. In an idyllic, five-acre woodland oasis with ancient tree stands and views over the lagoon, these structures reflect upon how the chapel of the 21st century might look given that, as Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, puts it, blueprints for religious architecture too frequently mimic what’s already known.
The projects by architects from Europe, Japan, Latin America, the USA and Australia are as diverse as their creators’ origins and cultures. They were inspired by the rudimentary Skogskapellet that Erik Gunnar Asplund planned in 1920 for a woodland cemetery in Stockholm. Asplund’s minor masterpiece defined the chapel as a place of orientation, encounter and meditation that appears to be organically rooted in its surroundings. The eleven Vatican chapels blend in just as perfectly and respectfully with the spacious garden on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed as spaces to be frequented by individuals in some cases and groups in others. Whilst some celebrate emptiness and solitude, others are of an outward-going transparency that causes them to merge with their environs. Some create small, dark, protected niches, whilst others come across as being replete with up-beat clarity. Common to all projects, however, is their unconventional approach and a distinctive, energy-charged aura.
The highlights include a geometrical chapel by Sir Norman Foster (London) formed out of slender wooden beams and a filigree steel structure. Foster himself describes his building as a small “place of refuge” that guides one’s gaze towards the lagoon. The terracotta-hued “Morning Chapel” by Flores & Prats (Barcelona), by contrast, has a Mediterranean, well nigh poetic feel about it, its high window positioned in such a way that the first rays of the morning sun light up the small altar. The chapel by the Australian Sean Godsell focuses the visitor’s gaze on a section of the heavens framed by the shimmering golden walls of his chapel tower. Even plainer and more radically pared down to essentials is the chapel by Brazilian architect Carla Juaçaba. It consists of four silvered steel rods forming rudimentary crosses along the vertical and horizontal axes that engender a sense of three-dimensionality whilst also serving as a bench.
What it was that motivated the Vatican to participate in the Biennial is not explained in detail. The chapels, at once inspired and inspiring, allow the correlations between architecture, space, art and faith to be thought from a new perspective and are amongst the best on show this year in Venice. An unexpectedly fresh wind appears to be blowing through the Vatican, which recently even worked with the MoMA on an exhibition in New York. Such stylistically assured commitment will surely enhance the Catholic Church’s image in the cultural sphere – though a visit to San Giorgio Maggiore does not reveal whether this is the result of a new, worldly openness or of clever marketing.