Chapel of Contemplation

Volume 52, Issue 1 :: Andrew Berman :: Photographs by Adria Goula

Chapel overlooking the water.

Chapel in its island garden setting, overlooking the water.

Ten architects representing as many different countries were invited to each design and build a chapel located in a wooded area on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy. Together, these chapels formed the Vatican City’s pavilion for the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. This was the first entrance of the Vatican to the Venice Architecture Biennale, and meant to express the Catholic Church’s wish to engage the arts, and communicate with contemporary culture through beauty.

Consideration of Beauty

Entry to the chapel, as it faces the water.

Entry to the chapel, as it faces the water.

This motivation was reflected in Pope Francis’ statement about the role of beauty in creating places of contemplation and meditation. According to the pope, “We must be bold enough to discover signs and new symbols…and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty which may mean little to the evangelizers, yet prove particularly attractive for others.”

The project was commissioned by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and curated and organized by Professor Francesco Dal Co of the University IUAV of Venice. Dal Co was inspired by a visit to architect Eric Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Chapel, built in 1920 in the Woodland Cemetery of Stockholm, Sweden. This moving encounter led Dal Co to discuss a project with the Holy See. A wooded park on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, adjacent to Palladio’s masterwork, San Giorgio Maggiore, and the Giorgio Cini Foundation was selected as the site.

Chapel plan

Chapel plan Courtesy of Andrew Berman Architect

The brief was succinct and provided no direction as to the use or representational identity of the commissioned chapels. This allowed the respective designs to be developed in a unique and unfettered manner. Cardinal Ravasi wrote of the how the chapels might fulfill a vision: “It is a path for all who wish to rediscover beauty, silence, the interior and transcendent voice, the human fraternity of being together in the assembly of people, and the loneliness of the woodland, where one can experience the rustle of nature, which is like a cosmic temple.”
Significantly, the Vatican chapels reclaimed an overgrown wooded garden on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. These woods are now, for the first time, a free public garden for the people of Venice, and for all who visit.

The invited architects to design the chapels included myself from the US; Francesco Cellini of Italy; Javier Corvalan of Paraguay; Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats of Spain; Norman Foster of Great Britain; Terunobu Fujimori of Japan; Sean Godsell of Australia; Carla Juacaba of Brazil; Smiljan Radic of Chile; and Eduardo Souto de Moura of Portugal. Francesco Magnani and Traudy Pelzel of Venice designed the entry pavilion.

Design Approach

The back of the chapel rises to an acute angle.

The back of the chapel rises to an acute angle.

We selected our site within the park with an idea of celebrating the unique character of this beautiful and mysterious place through the siting and experience of the chapel. One approaches the chapel threading through the willowy marine pines. Upon arrival, a spectacular view south across the lagoon presents itself. The chapel negotiates a location on the edge of the woods, opening out to a view of the horizon across the water. It makes a place.

Our chapel for San Giorgio Maggiore is a simple structure. Its kin are sheds—buildings assembled of readily available materials for simple use or shelter. It is framed of wood studs and rafters. All exterior surfaces are clad in milky-white translucent panels. The interior is lined in black-painted plywood. The plywood lining is folded down from the apex of the volume, allowing daylight to filter into the interior.

We designed the chapel purposely without reference to religious structures—it does not include religious iconography or allusions. It makes no provisions for liturgical ritual. Through geometry, the shaping of carefully scaled space, and the use of natural light and darkness, a focused atmosphere is created.

The structure is a precise form of anonymous origin, an indeterminate presence in the landscape. It is a dignified structure created with a modesty of means. The porch has a long bench creating a communal place to gather, a spot from which to look out and experience one’s surroundings. The interior bench within offers a place for one to sit and rest. It is a space inward looking, under natural light, while enveloped in darkness.

Silence, Peace, Beauty

Sunlit retreat at back of chapel

At the very back of the chapel, in the acute angle, is a sunlit retreat.

After the completion of the chapel, Dal Co and a writer visited the chapel. A New York Times article, “The Most Surprising Entry in Venice’s Architecture Biennale? The Vatican’s,” reads in part:

Mr. Dal Co sat down on a small wood bench in the porch of the simple chapel designed by Andrew Berman, the New York architect who is the only North American among the group. He crossed his legs and looked out onto the water, where a group of children were engaged in a sailing regatta.

A faraway bell tolled the hour. Birds sang.

“If you’re a citizen of New York or Milan, where else would you find another place that offers this silence, this peace, this beauty just from looking, sitting on a bench in a piece of architecture, made by a man from New York,” Mr. Dal Co said.

The sense of solitude here, “is strong,” he said. “It’s marvelous.”

The 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale was open from May 26, 2018 through November 25, 2018. Through an agreement between the Vatican, the Italian State, and the Giorgio Cini Foundation, the chapels are to become protected structures and will remain open to the public into the future.

The author is the principal of Andrew Berman Architect, a New York City-based practice focused on the realization of unique and finely executed buildings and public spaces.