Before being a discipline which gives shape to a space, architecture is a look at – and an attitude towards – the landscape; it is also a field where questions are raised aboutliving, where the needs and characters of individuals, families and communities must be understood as playing a substantial part in their dwelling places.
In planning two chapels – whose design I personally oversaw on behalf of the studio of Lisbona Aires Mateus – with a patient rhythm and a careful step, as well as using the instruments of our profession (the intuition of the capacity of a placefor transformation, the definition of a space, the search for substance and for atmosphere), we sought to understand the character of these buildings and their function. A chapel is a “small” piece of architecture but has great symbolic value which is comprised in its vocation as a simple shelter that is the starting point for its construction.
A chapel is a presence. As in Tonino Guerra’s abandoned churches, a chapel is a place where a thought may dwell which would not otherwise exist.
A chapel is a symbol in the region, the mark of a crossroads, the remembrance of an event, the celebration of a phenomenon or a simple place with a name of its own.
A chapel is a casket of beauty, of light, sometimes even only of emptiness: it is a handful of air, snatched from the breathlessness of the rest of the world and preserved in order to give us comfort.
A chapel is a place to walk to, an affective reference to the devotions of small communities and individual pilgrimages or the simple destination of a stroll.
A chapel is a container of silence, stillness preserved in order to give us the rare possibility to hear, to listen. And to be silent.
A chapel is a reference point in the area, an infrastructure of our landscapes and our hills, a shelter for shepherds at night and for vagabonds in a rain storm.
A chapel is also merely a space. If we accept it as a simple and essential shelter, we shall also always be able to leave it open.
Contemporary reflection on liturgical architecture has been little concerned with these forms of sacred and at the same time domestic architecture, close to our history and to our communities. Perhaps our contemporary way of life stands in need of chapels, points of an affective geography that mark our countryside, caskets of beauty, empty in expectation, containers that welcome an increasingly felt need for silence; examples of architecture of a size that is tailored to fit us.
The Chapel of San Gerolamo at Palanzo
The small outlying district of Palanzo consists of a handful of stone houses set on a slope facing Lake Como. The church is located in the highest part of the village, lightly standing out over the stone roofs. From here a high path leaves the residential area and leads to a Way of the Cross that winds upwards to the little church of the Soldo. Behind this tiny church a small path ventures into the wood until it reaches a clearing and here crosses the mule track which, again from the village church, leads to Monte Palanzone.
The Chapel of San Gerolamo [St Jerome] is a tower that stands in the midst of a clearing, taller than the beech trees that surround it. At this point on the ridge the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun draw a line of shade that for some time resists being swallowed up by the wood and, a little later, by the chapel. The tower is austere and mineral. Its interior, luminous and precious, consists of four spaces: a vertical hall, a deep threshold which affords shelter to vagabonds, a high space which lets in the light from the west, burnishing the walls; and a lower space that is filled with the reflected light of snow in winter and holds a figure of St Jerome, custodian of this hermitage.
A sign in the countryside, a reference point on the paths, the Chapel of San Gerolamo is a space sculpted by light, an emptiness waiting, in itself a clearing.
Didascalia: The cluster of houses in Palanzo; and on page 10, the tower in the clearing
The Chapel of La Madonna del Rumore in Valsesia
The Madonna del Rumore [Our Lady of Noise] stands at the convergence of a rushing mountain stream and the river on the valley floor. It is a point in which this meeting of waters echoes loudly, the chapel marks the moment when, climbing back up the valley, we leave all the noise behind us to enter a landscape of mountains and silence. In the “territory” of my childhood it marks for me the clear threshold of the month of August.
The Bom Sucesso Home in Lisbon
The Belém district developed around the Jeronimos Monastery [Monastery of the Hieronymites] and on the stretch of coast from which the great expeditions set sail in the second half of the 15th century. Over the course of the centuries the city of Lisbon spread until it reached Belém: in the early 19th century this involved a few palaces and a suburban beach (Praia do Bom Sucesso), while at the end of the same century large industrial structures appeared here and in the 20th century cultural and touristic buildings. Yet Belém has retained its extensive open spaces, its uncluttered relationship with the river, the monumental scale of its principal buildings (religious, industrial and cultural) and the modest scale of its domestic architecture, the dazzling light reflected from the river and the white stone of the monastery and of its most important buildings.
A home for the elderly came into being on the edgeof the old Bom Sucesso beach. The building has the size, form and orientation of the great industrial archetypes of this district and faces the river. From the alignment of the old beach, along which the bulk of the retirement home looks out, a small chapel rises, white stone illuminated by the light reflected from the river, sited on the border of a territory historically competed for by land and water. Pilgrims by nature and by tradition, the elderly will be able to cross a small garden in order to reach it. Inside, a pure space is suspended by the light which enters the volume of the building through a great lantern turned towards the river. A few prie-dieu will permit the old people to pause there and make this timeless space stripped of all references their own. An altar, almost portable like those of the missionaries who put to sea, will make it possible for liturgical functions to take place there.
Bom Sucesso Chapel is a stark building, ever open to a community in need of a place for prayer, a destination for its short strolls and refreshment for its long hours.
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