Designing for God ? – 3 modern churches

« I have often asked myself why it should be so difficult to design a church. The question confuses me every time. It provokes me. Because it touches something essential in my existence upon which I have been unable to take a definite stand : my personal relationship with religion. That is precisely why it all becomes so difficult »

Kjell Lund, What is a Church?, Arkitektnytt, 1955

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St Hallvard’s church- architects & image : Lund & Slaatto 

How can an architect design a Church? What should be prioritised and what determines the shape and space of the church building?

Historically, the rules had been set: most of the catholic churches were to be arranged in the shape of a Christian cross. The orthogonal bases of the building are the symbol of our life on earth whereas rounded or spherical shapes symbolise the divine world. A dome or other large vaulted space in the interior of the building often embodies this symbol. This common vocabulary of shapes is here to remind us that the church aims to bring together the earth and the celestial world.

cross shaped churchesBut after WWII, when cities were left with little money to rebuild themselves, the name of the game changed. Le Corbusier’s church in Ronchamp is a key example: Le Corbusier declared himself an atheist and when Besançon’s inhabitants and diocese asked him to rebuild the church, he was mainly known for his «housing unit», a solution to housing problems in this postwar period. We can clearly see that the priorities have changed: the first priority is the reconstruction, the second one is modernisation. The catholic church – facing a general dechristianisation – had no choice but to renew itself. With Ronchamp, Le Corbusier opened the door to a room full of possibilities.

How to reinvent such a building? What is a church?*

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St Hallvard’s church– architects & image : Lund & Slaatto 

When looking at Lund & Slaatto’s Saint Hallvard’s church building (1966), you can definitely see they nurtured a traditional symbolic approach to holly architecture. Square bases and an inverted dome: it seems like the architects strived to give a personal interpretation of symbolism. But for priest Oddvar Moi this church is like every other. He also thinks it is not so nice to work in a dark space every day.

outside-view-Couvent de la tourette image: Le couvent de la Tourette

In 2012, I stayed a week in the Couvent de la Tourette designed by Le Corbusier. Adopting the Dominican brothers’ rhythm, this architectural and spiritual experience affected me deeply. In this building, Le Corbusier did not prioritised symbols but designed every single detail for the specific lifestyle of the Dominicans. He was designing for people using and living in the building.

“This church of hard concrete is a work of love. You cannot describe it. It has to be experienced from the inside. The essential happens inside of it.” 

Le Corbusier

Capture d’écran 2015-10-25 à 18.58.07refectoire

image: Le couvent de la Tourette
What a greater proof of love and respect for this building and its architect than the funeral vigil given by the brothers in La Tourette at the death of Le Corbusier?

With the Bakkehaugen Church (1961), it seems like Ove Bang and Erling Viksjø were both following Le Corbusier’s path. This building in the north suburbs of Oslo is composed of two spaces: a triangle shaped church and a common room/refectory. You can access this function room from the church, passing by the Altar. The way you move through the building seems to abolish any form of hierarchy between the prayers’ space and the community’s space. Think of the etymology of the word church: from Greek « ekklêsia » standing for « community ». Here the church literally is « the building that gather the catholic community ».
When we asked Father Kjelsvik about the building, he said he wouldn’t change it if he could! He offers mass in two different churches and this one is his favorite for sure!

Jiri Havran © RiksantikvarenBakkehaugen Church- image: Per Arne Kjelsvik

first image  :  © Riksantikvaren / second image : Per Arne Kjelsvik
 

Regardless of the architect’s faith or the status of the building, what if the quality of a church – like any other building – was mainly about designing for people?

 

Chloe Adelheim – Norwegian Architecture – Fall 2015