Volume 48, Issue 2 :: By Franco Pisani
A Kid’s Tale Around the Highway Church
“What my eyes saw was simultaneous; what I shall write is successive…Something of it, though, I will capture.”
Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph
The Highway Church, la Chiesa dell’Autostrada, is the nickname that is commonly used to name the Church of San Giovanni Battista in Campi Bisenzio. The church is located half-way between Milan and Rome next to the A1 Motorway—Milano-Napoli—also called Autostrada del Sole, and it was built to honor the memory of the workers who had died during the motorway’s construction. Architect Giovanni Michelucci got the commission in 1960; the design and construction phases had a rough and not linear evolution until the consecration in 1964. From the early sketches, it appears as a sacred tent, a pocket of space built in three materials (stone, reinforced concrete, copper) and organized by light.
The church, inspired by the idea of the meeting spaces of early nomadic Christians, is offered to the community of travelers to inspire a sense of interaction and hope. Michelucci (whose approach to faith has been controversial), speaking of his churches in an 1987 interview, said: “More than a sense of sacred, I always tried to convey a sense of hope.”
San Giovanni Battista is not a parish church; in fact in canonical terms it is a “rettoria.” This means that it is not made for a particular community but it is made for the community of the travelling people. Fully in the spirit of the Concilio Vaticano Secondo (1962-1965) and inspired by the figure of Pope Giovanni XXIII, the architect conceived a gathering space for travelers, with a door but without an end, so that the building’s form itself would allow, suggest and create opportunity for encounters.
Giovanni Michelucci was one of the most important Italian architects of 20th century. Even if his interest for sacred space was broad, in his nearly century-long life (he died on New Year’s Eve 1990, just two days before his hundredth birthday) he had the opportunity to design about 25 churches. Seventeen of them have been translated into buildings among which there are some of the most interesting religious buildings of modern times. Michelucci also loved to confabulate and tell fairytales. He always used to call himself a storyteller. In 1981, when he published the letter with which he left the School of Architecture of Florence, in the book: La Felicità dell’Architetto, he quoted in the cover a phrase from Socrates’ Phaedo: “…The venture is a glorious one, and he ought to comfort himself with words like these, which is the reason why I lengthen out the tale.”
The only time I met Michelucci was in September 1989. He was 98 and I was a shameless second-year student of architecture: How could we possibly have anything to talk about? I remember un vecchio bellissimo. He was seated on an armchair, recovering from a broken femur. An enthusiastic child inside a centenary body, inspiring and enlightening as only the teller of fairytales can be, Michelucci started to talk and ask questions. The storyteller was fading into the fairy-tale, and the student into a whimsical creature. One hour later, while I was leaving his room he said: “We are friends now, we have things to talk about.”
A few months after that, on March 27, 1990, Giovanni Michelucci was invited by the students of the School of Architecture of Florence to open the academic year. It was a late opening because that academic year the school was occupied by protesting students blocking all didactic activities. In front of a large crowd of emotionally involved students, he told us a fairy tale:
I have dreamt of the simplest thing that a man can dream of. I have dreamt of a hut in the woods, not a beautiful house, but a poor hut with a door recessed deep into its stone wall, a provisional dwelling whose image evoked childhood, ancestral memories, the smells and temper of moss, of freshly baked bread, of cheese. Memories are a reality recoverable only in dreams.
As I approached, the hut started to shrink rather than grow. It became so small that it seemed uninhabitable. But the care with which its garden was kept, the freshness of its painted surfaces, and the tidiness of its appearance were signs of a life within. When I reached the hut, I discovered a tiny window, almost too small to light any room. Suddenly, I glimpsed something inside. I saw a wing, a huge wing that must have filled the tiny room.
It was an angel’s wing.
There was an angelic presence. It was an angel who, with the movement of its wings, was creating an atmosphere. Wonderful. An angel can live in such a small space… In the hut there were creatures who lived and found space for all their small things, they create space but they aren’t men, they are angels… I think I understood a simple truth: it is not places that must change but their inhabitants. Giotto understood this well when he made the space surrounding his figures too narrow for the action. The wing in the hut was like the angel’s wing that crosses the small window in the kiosk of the Annunciation. I think a space is only “poor” when it is an unfit arena for interaction; and it is always “beautiful” when it generates encounters and previously unexpected possibilities.
I like to evoke this episode while trying to talk about the experience of visiting the Chiesa dell’Autostrada, not only because it’s a church–and angelic presences, by nature, should be expected inside a church–but because that particular church puts me in a childish mindset and makes me feel like an angel. Each time that I walk in, I become ageless, a playful kid, and I start seeking hidden angels.
Many difficult words and metaphors have been used in the past, and will continue to be invented, to categorize and criticize this building. And I don’t want to proceed in that direction, nor to transform this text into a precise description of the walls or the reinforced concrete tree-shaped structure that hold the roof. It is hard and in a certain sense useless trying to evoke this very church through the description of its components, of its shell. From the very early sketches the church is represented as a series of pathways circling aimlessly around an empty core. The building transcends its form, it is pure space; it is an angel. So I prefer to speak of the experience of the space.
Even if spatial experience is simultaneous, and words (as well as drawings) are successive (as Borges said perfectly in The Aleph) something of it, though, I will capture.
What really interests the architect is to take us–it doesn’t matter for what reason–into the space; that space that is only poor when it is not inspiring interaction.
This was important for Michelucci: to create a stimulating space for introspection and for understanding man’s place in society. In this sense it could be argued that Michelucci’s idea of the church was not exactly the house of God, but rather the house of all men, irrespective of their religion. The search to define a space at the same time highly meaningful and dense of symbolic references ended up in a built church that is respectful of the programmatic liturgical instances as well. Even if recomposed in a unconventional way, all the elements required by the program are there: a main church with three altars, a baptistery, a wedding chapel, a Via Crucis, some confession boxes, an organ, stained glass, a sacristy, a bell tower, an entrance, and a sagrato. Michelucci and his building itself are there to go along with us, to offer us alternatives. Through their gentle guidance, they never impose decisions or preconceived directions. Like angels do.
As a designer the lesson learned is very simple: When trying to define a space, you must help life to enjoy it by showing and sharing it from as many points and direction as possible. From pathways to terraces, from passages to staircases, to floors, to courtyards, to windows and openings, everything must sanctify the spatial experience. Life must be able to enter it, to breath in it, to fly over it, to walk around, to go underneath it, to rest and hide in it, in one word to inhabit it.
As an educator, I’m convinced that one of the simplest and best criteria to evaluate the quality of a space, which in reality is not an easy task, is to try to imagine it as a playground for hide and seek. It is a pretty fundamental and timeless game where the players attempt to conceal their location while others try to find them. What do you need to play hide and seek? Hiding and spying skills, a location offering the possibility to disappear, and a few friends. You can’t play alone, at least if you don’t play with angels. When you play hide and seek you are alone in a space no matter if you are hiding or seeking, but you need others. An entertaining space for hide and seek is a good space, with complexity and a calibrated balance in between the different episodes. It will provide a setting for different moods, mixing intimacy and the explicit, inspiring ways of interaction.
When you play in the same space after few games, people will remember the good places and will search there first, so you must start to interact with the space, interpreting it, finding its potentiality. It goes without saying that a woods or a piece of a medieval city are wonderful places where you can play. But try to imagine a hide and seek game in Villa Adriana, or at the Counvent de la Tourette…wouldn’t that be amazing?
Like angels, like winged curious kids looking for a spot to hide, we are invited to experience the space, first entering it from a long nartece that has the task of distressing and freeing us from the noise outside. We can take a right to enter the main space or get a bit lost in the meanders that lead to the baptistery. We can feel an attraction for the darkness of the Via Crucis around one of the altars, or stay in the midst of the highest peak of the tent that covers us. We can rest in one of the small niches or feel protected by a cavity offered by the stone wall. When in the gallery that leads to the baptistery, in the silver atmosphere produced by the light filtered by the leaves of the olive trees, we can decide to go downstairs where we find the basin or go up spiraling around it.
After the baptistery, we can go back to where we came or, pushed by curiosity or simply by instinct, we can follow one of the mazelike corridors that will take us (through a spiral staircase or through a terrace overlooking the entrance gallery) to a loft which sits between the main hall and the nartece. We are up on the wedding chapel, but most importantly we are flying in the space again. Like angels. Or like kids playing hide and seek.
Once out of the construction, in the garden covered of grass and planted with olive trees that recalls the Gethsemane, we realize again the presence of the motorway as a noisy backdrop at the summit of an embankment. And then, the game restarts. We discover another pathway, covered in stone and with an undulating profile that embraces the church complex. We are circling up and down around a landscape made of pale pink stones from San Giuliano and green oxidized copper, where between cavities and hills we discover the silhouette of the cross at the top of a Golgotha. Everything makes me want to run, to discover new unexpected views. I won’t go home before hugging those stones, which, after a sunny day, exude not only physical heat but the warmth of the passion and the pain of the craftsmen who toiled after them.
A place to play hide and seek. A space to be alone with others. Space and people: that is what Michelucci searched all his life.
All-y all-y in come free!
Who is “it” next?