An Oasis of Quiet in the City

Volume 52, Issue 2 :: Text by Miguel Guitart :: Photography by Pedro Pegenaute

Santa Maria Assunta Church

Santa Maria Assunta Church as it occupies its city corner in Tarragona, Spain.

The commission from the Archbishopric of Tarragona, Spain for the design and construction of the new Santa Maria Assunta Church and Parish Center required a broad program that included a worship space, a parish center, and a priests’ residence. The program aimed to give way to a Christian oasis in a secular desert. As a result, the new parish center had to be a place to escape from the noise of daily life, to dedicate time to retreat, and to encounter God. The new Santa Maria Assunta church was born with the intention to offer a quiet space for withdrawal to all who approach the new complex.

The new parish center is located within a low-income 1960s neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. The area was developed after the arrival of several chemical companies. The Bonavista neighborhood became home to a number of families that settled from southern Spain, seeking new job opportunities and a better life. In order to solve the lodging problem that followed the massive migration, a grid-like extension to the city was designed and laid out. Each family was then allotted a piece of land where they could build their own house. Obviously, the urban design only considered the urgent need for housing at the time, disregarding any public space consideration, which was reduced to just the sidewalks. A later decision avoided the construction on three contiguous blocks, setting the Paseo de la Constitucion. It was next to this urban void that the old school and church were built by the neighbors themselves. Up to a decade ago, the church was the place for local Masses, until the decision to build a new church was made.

Bonavista continues to be a welcoming neighborhood for the families that precariously arrive in Tarragona, and its streets display a great array of cultures. Such diversity occupies a disheartening built environment with a variable architecture of unequal quality and design through the grid-like streets.

An Urban Strategy

The solution proposed for the new church and parish center approaches in the first place an urban strategy, aware of the opportunity that the new complex brings in the character renewal of Bonavista. The design is conceived as an urban beacon whose presence becomes a new reference in the everyday life of the neighborhood. To such end, the program is divided in two, arranging all the functions related to the residence and the parish center in one volume, and isolating the church and its required spaces in a second volume.

The parish center contains the priests’ residence, classrooms, and other parish facilities, creating an L-shaped volume that retains the existing party walls of adjacent buildings and replicating the urban geometry. The parish center implies an organizing frame that frees the most visible corner of the site, next to the Paseo de la Constitución, where the volume of the church is located. The detached construction moves forward into the public realm.

Such a strategy in the building configuration owes much to San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, by Francesco Borromini in 1638. The idea is to shift the church toward the public plaza, devoid from the servitude of complementary or contextual circumstances. The large volume is detached, and frees itself from the alignments or setback regulations, therefore insisting on its geometric independence. In this way, the church occupies the most visible corner of the site, emphasizing its presence within the city as an architectural beacon full of character.

The arrangement of the volumes allows for an open space between the two buildings that becomes a special place for two reasons: first as a welcoming realm, and second as a space for relations. The void opens to the plaza and connects visually with the public space. It constitutes a mandatory entry prior to the access to the parish center or the residence. The courtyard becomes a transition between the city and the spaces for retreat that the new complex offers; it unifies the different accesses and organizes the circulations within the parish center. At the same time, the open courtyard takes advantage of the year-round soft Mediterranean weather, facilitating a number of complimentary outdoor activities: from the more social encountering and teaching to the more intimate exercise of retreat, typical of the cloisters of ancient cathedrals.

The scale of the building that contains the parish center and the residence is adjusted to the surrounding built context, where the multiple-family residential typology predominates. The neutral L-shaped volume acts as a background that frames the concrete church. The strict geometry of the parish center accommodates different functions and programs, like the educational spaces, services, and parish offices, as well as meeting rooms and classrooms. Two large flexible spaces on the ground level have the capacity to host larger events like collective retreat, lectures, and social gatherings up to a total attendance of 200. The larger of these two rooms opens up to the courtyard, allowing for an even bigger capacity and increasing the different dynamics that may take place between the interior and the exterior spaces.

The north side of the L-shaped building contains the priests’ residence, which can be accessed independently by cars and pedestrians. The former can enter the complex through the side street, behind the head of the church, and the latter can do so through the courtyard, from a slightly elevated platform at the end of the open space, thus providing a more private entry. The residence has two levels; the first one has the bedrooms and the second one contains the common spaces – the kitchen, the dining room, and a large room shared by all residents. A number of study areas reinforce the idea of the retreat for intellectual reflection. This idea takes place again at the parish center at a larger scale.

Church and parish center

Church and parish center as it addresses the Paseo de la Constitución, with courtyard between.

Of Planes, Volumes, and Crystals

The facades of the parish center and residence are conceived as soft and terse planes that constitute the scaleless and neutral background for the concrete volume of the church. A perforated metal skin covers the entire L-shaped building, hiding openings and other elements that could manifest to the outside. Only the lower floor does not have a metal screen and opens completely onto the courtyard. This decision exposes all the entrances and displays the interior activities to the outside in a play of transparencies that encourages the visitor to discover the center and participate in its facilities.

The tall volume that moves forward to meet the public space of the Paseo de la Constitución is singularly framed by the metal skin of the background building. The heavy polyhedric mass alludes assertively to geological crystal formations and manifests itself within the surrounding urban fabric, becoming a symbol for the identity of the neighborhood.

There are two entries to the church: from the public street and from the private courtyard. In both cases, the access takes place after a sequence of spaces that prepare the visitor for the sacred experience. The main entry is designed as a large-scale opening, deep in the center of the front facade. The imposing steel doors open to a compressed space under the choir loft that precedes the expansion of the central nave. In a similar way, the side entrance from the courtyard is conceived as a tapered volume and small scale that ends at the side aisle. Both entries recreate a necessary sequence that introduces the atmosphere for retreat and prayer.

The church is conceived as a single space for the liturgy and the congregation. The imposing concrete volume develops a vertical perception of the interior by means of the projection of the lights from the two long monitor windows above onto the naked concrete shell. These openings remain hidden on the inside, and the effect produced by the light facilitates a weightless and spiritual atmosphere, in clear contrast with the hard envelope of the nave.

The continuous walls define a perimeter with barely any openings with the exception of three, strategically located toward the courtyard and the west. These openings are, however, clad with alabaster marble, which diffuses the soft light in a scenographic way, thus emphasizing the right atmosphere for introspection, prayer, and spiritual retreat. The matter that closes these unusual perforations fills the space with a golden suspended air that floods the altar piece. The golden accent finds consistency in the large tabernacle that presides the perspective of the nave and contains necessary elements for the liturgy.

The material experience of the abstract concrete envelope is sober and assertive. This vertical enclosure defines a serene and profound place for everyone to use. This architecture has no style, and refers to absolute and universal values that promote retreat and introspection. Structure, scale, matter, and light closely work together with the aim of transmitting a sense of mystery and achieve the intimate experience of the sacred.

The author is a principal of Gimeno Guitart (, an award-winning Madrid- and Buffalo-based architecture practice formed by Daniel Gimeno and Miguel Guitart. In addition, the firm is involved with research and teaching internationally.