Faith and concrete

 St Hallvard Church

Y en el espacio de aquel hueco inmenso y mudo, Dios y yo éramos dos.

Juan Ramón Jiménez

 

Nestled amid three tower blocks on a little range of hills in Enerhaugen, St Hallvard Church rises as a distinctive building for what otherwise would have been a densely-populated, dreary area. The idea had come up in late 1950s when there was a need for a monastery providing space for contemplative life as well as a new head church for the large St Hallvard parish, which covered all the eastern area of Oslo, from the city centre to the adjacent suburbs. Franciscan monks running the parish contacted the young architectural office of Kjell Lund and Nils Slaatto, which took charge of the project until is completion nearly a decade later.

Its innovative design went hand in hand with the substantial changes occurring within the Catholic Church at that time. The Second Vatican Council brought from Rome a deep renewal in liturgy, which also encompassed a broad revision of aesthetics and sacred art. Therefore, a new religious architecture emerged, more attentive to the society the Church aimed to serve. In that context, St Hallvard adopted the Council principles to the point of being defined as “the most authentic expression for the status of religion in our time” by Christian Norberg-Schulz.

Unlike other post-conciliar churches which emphasised openness, surroundings flanked by high-rise blocks made St Hallvard much more closed to the outside world and turned inwards. Its strong presence is reinforced by the simplicity of rectilinear forms and the rough eloquence of masonry, in a massive cube which completely conceals interior spaces. Only in the south-west façade, where the monastic cells were located, the building opens up to the outside.

A circular plan inserted in the cube configures the nave as a cylindrical space only interrupted by three deep slits which, through the use of glass bricks and transparent glass, timidly connect the church with the exterior. At the same time, the slits divide the spaces between the exterior cube and the inner cylinder, housing the monastery dependences, the sacristy and a rectangular chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Entrance to the church was placed in one of the slits, not in line with the altar, creating a movement towards the centre. However, the blur of traditional axiality was not entirely achieved as benches were finally arranged in a rather conventional way.

The altar, a simple concrete block rising above a circular podium, remains as the point to which all the eyes are turning. Nevertheless, post-conciliar Church recommended the chancel to be deprived of profuse decoration, so as to focus on the liturgy and the message. In St Hallvard, a humble crucifix originally hanged behind the altar, and the tabernacle is not present in the nave, as sacraments are preserved in the contiguous chapel.

However, what made St Hallvard Church unprecedented in 1960s Norway and set it apart from other contemporaneous churches was the roof solution, which was the outcome of multiple exploration made by the architects. The final design covered the nave with a large concrete shell that hangs downward, compressing the inner space, as the presence of heaven bending down into the Creation. This stereotomic anti-cupola obscures the interior and light is only admitted through very small openings. In an atmosphere poetically resembling early Christians’ catacombs, the interior would have been almost entirely in penumbra if it were not for the electric lights installed after the pleas of exasperated churchgoers which could not see much beyond their psalm books.

Thus, in St Hallvard Church, Lund+Slaatto went beyond a mere functionalist approach and integrated within design the ecclesiastical winds of change, proving that architecture can reach further to express a transcendental meaning.

Vatican II canons were applied to the church design

Vatican II principles applied to the church design

Sources
LUND+SLAATTO. (1997) St Hallvard Kirke og Kloster. Oslo. Arfo.
MORALES FOLGUERA, J. M. (1979) Arquitectura religiosa posconciliar: forma y función. Málaga. Baética

Picture: Courtesy of Jiri Havran