Located on the quiet, secluded island of San Giorgio Maggiore lies the Vatican’s entry to this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale - bringing quite the transformation to the event. For one, this is the Vatican’s first entry into an architectural exhibition of this scale. Secondly, entries to the Architecture Biennale are usually models, renderings, and sketches of the building process by architects, while the Vatican’s entry is comprised of 10 built chapels. Professor Francesco Dal Co, the curator, was the driving force of the Vatican choice to pursue these built works as opposed to entering renderings. We hope architectural tourists reading this will have a chance to visit this year’s Biennale and see these spaces.
Professor Francesco Dal Co selected 12 contemporary architects from around the world that included 2 Pritzker Prize winners, Eduardo Souto de Mouro and Norman Foster, and invited them to submit designs for the chapels. The only bounds they were given to the architects is that the chapels have a pulpit and an altar, to represent the core of Christianity, which is “the word, and the bread and wine”. The architects were directed to the Swedish architect, Gunnar Aslpund’s “Woodland Chapel,” built almost a century ago, for their design inspiration. Professor Francesco Dal Co explains, “with this small masterpiece Asplund defined the chapel as a place of orientation, encounter and meditation, seemingly formed by chance or natural forces inside a vast forest, seen as the physical suggestion of the labyrinthine progress of life, the wandering of humankind as a prelude to the encounter.”
Aslpund’s “Woodland Chapel” drawings and model of the chapel is displayed at the entrance to the Vatican’s exhibit, in order to connect the viewer to the inspirational source guiding the architecture. The ties between this original work and the exhibition are carried over in the secluded nature of both and their distinction from everyday life. A visitor embarks on a pilgrimage of sorts, to even view these architectural installations. While chapels are usually placed in a center of civilization for the use of a community, these are placed in a secluded area, intertwined with nature, creating a compelling challenge for the architects. The site, removed from the urban core, allows visitors to truly connect with nature. Cardinal Ravasi explanations a visit to the exhibit as, “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.”
The variety of modern architectural style and interpretation of “chapel” is remarkable – ranging from Norman Foster’s skeletal wooden structure, to Francesco Cellini’s juncture of sleek, ceramic slabs. There is Terunobu Fujimori’s more traditional enclosed chapel, with seating and an illusion of the customary stained glass windows. While others are more interpretive, including Javier Corvalán Espinola’s chapel, a massive steel tripod apparatus, with a central hovering cross emitting a shadow cross on the ground. The most otherworldly chapel is Carla Juaçaba’s steel mirrored cross, which seemingly floats in mid-air. Cardinal Ravasi remarks, “These are true and proper temples in Christian worship, even if in a minor form compared with cathedrals, basilicas and churches.”
Although religious in context, this was not so much an attempt to spread the religiosity of chapels, as an attempt to bridge the gap between secularism and spirituality, between art and faith. A question remains as to whether this architecture will stay or go after the exhibition is over in November. There have already been requests to relocate them elsewhere, although Professor Dal Co would be happy to have them stay, suggesting they’d be a beacon of hospitality, an opportunity to share the peacefulness of the island to others, and benefit Venice’s economy. We find these structures an alluring ode to architecture’s ability to influence the meaning and purpose of faith.