The Vatican City, known to be the home of the Pope and an important pilgrimage for many all around the world. The Vatican city every year sets out to explore the new idea of what a church should look like through the Venice Architecture Biennale. Vatican Chapel, the Holy See Pavilion invites architects from across the world to design their interpretation of a 21st-century church at Venetian Island of San Giorgio Maggiore. The brief usually given to architects is to design in the woodlands and usually in isolation and the challenge was to blend the build with nature along with characterizing the water of the lagoon. The event started with architect Gunnar Asplund built a wooden chapel secluded with surroundings and free from attachments of religion and religious sites in 1920.
In 2018, the exhibition was curated by Francesco Dal Co, Fosters and Partners under the ideology of Norman Foster. The site given to them was among the wooden area of the island. The start of the project was through the establishment of three primary symbolisms through the landscape draped in a membrane-like tent structure. The design was developed keeping in mind the association with nature in the surrounding. As the design evolved, the crosses became cables and masts, while the membrane developed to become a wooden latticework attached to the structure.
Norman Foster, Founder, and Executive Chairman, Foster + Partners said: “The project started with the selection of the site. On a visit to San Giorgio Maggiore, close to Palladio’s magnificent church and the Teatro Verde, I found a green space with two mature trees beautifully framing the view of the lagoon. It was like a small oasis in the big garden, perfect for contemplation. Our aim was to create a small space diffused with dappled shade and removed from the normality of passers-by, focussed instead on the water and sky beyond – a sanctuary”.
With the help of the engineers and the furniture designing company Tecno, Fosters + Partners they aimed to achieve the chapel to reflect the lightness and gracefully show the play of light in the structure. The structure consists of a ramp made of steel supported by a timber deck. The tensegrity of the structure is done through the steel masts and braced with the help of steel cables and small circular hollow sections. These enable the horizontal cross-arms and the vertical masts to be separate from one another and yet provide the required stability to the structure. The roof that was created was keeping in mind the lateral wind loads and the resistance to vertical gravitational loads. Since the structure is surrounded by many plantations, there are Jasmine vines that would climb to the structure and give the person a sense of calm and comfort in the structure.
Although the structure seems to be very transparent, it has its own mass and provides a very beautiful and scenic path for the people walking on the trail. The changes in the way the vines move help to give a pleasant experience. The fact that there is jasmine also provides a beautiful smell to space. The entire path is then an experience. It is also very interesting to see the interlocking of the timber in the structure along the way. While most of Foster + Partner’s work has been to express bold designs and use extravagant designs, this structure pays testament to the fact that ‘God lies in the details’. The calculated use of timber among the woods and to end the path with the view of the water is truly God-like.
The project although manages to capture the essence of the brief but also plays with the structural technological aspect with the use of the trusses and cables. At the surface, although the design seems simplistic, it has been executed with calculated effort with the use of the surroundings and makes sure the users of the structure enjoy their path to enlightenment. The structure definitely tries to rethink the idea of a church for the 21st century. Although the context of this may not be in an urban area, the intentions of opening up the structure and keeping it as transparent as possible are timeless.