Design for and by Community

Volume 52, Issue 2 :: Emanuele Cavallini, Francesca Daprà, and Giulia De Lucia

Developing participatory processes for the construction of Italian parish complexes.

St. Gianna Beretta Molla parish church, Trezzano sul Naviglio (Milano) by AAAAquattroassociati. Photo: Andrea Martiradonna, courtesy of AAAAquattroassociati

Roman Catholic parishes and their churches, historically ingrained in the urban and rural frame of the Italian context, are now passing through a process of reconsideration and regeneration. In a society more and more multicultural and fluid, the places for worship and spirituality are looking for new ways of conception, design, and management that can put in contact the sacred buildings with the community. The aim is to lead the churches to regain value as nodes of sociality and faith in the city, in the town, and in the neighborhood.

Designing New Churches in the Italian Context

Over the past two decades, the National Office for Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (BBCC CEI) experimented with some processes for the realization of new parish complexes. Six editions of the so-called “Pilot Projects” conceived 18 new churches in Italy, of which 11 have been built. These processes had the virtue of reconciling the Church with contemporary architecture by the communication activities between the clients and the designers, allowing them to conceive buildings more corresponding to the needs of the communities.

Despite that these experiences allowed the participation of the communities in the design processes, their precise role in the course of the conception and construction of new churches has not been defined yet. A strong discrepancy between the creative ideas of the designer and the faith community still exists. Currently the involvement of the community can be considered as an “optional strategy” according to a designer’s discretion and it can be applied only after the call for tender publication. Moreover, the lack of awareness of the architects about the real needs and about the sensibility of the communities creates an unavoidable distance between the people and the built churches. Several cases demonstrated that the churches are frequently conceived as works of art that people do not really understand and sometimes adapt, or even distort.

An Interdisciplinary Lab of Architecture and Liturgy

In 2017, the International Liturgical Conference of the Monastero di Bose, one of the most important appointments for the architecture for liturgy in Italy, focused on the participation of the community in the building process for the construction of new parish complexes. A workshop (CLI/LAB 1) open to young architects, engineers, liturgists, artists, and art historians took place before the International Conference to collect ideas and to start a reflection about this topic.

In October 2018, a second edition of the interdisciplinary lab (CLI/LAB 2) took place; four interdisciplinary teams were selected to collaborate on drafting a Preliminary Document for the Design (DPP) for four new churches in different diocesan contexts throughout the country. The admission to the call was restricted to groups composed by two designers (architects or engineers), one liturgist, one artist or art historian, and one researcher in the humanities (sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists). These groups have been supported throughout the process by various experts.*

The workshop activities took place between November 2017 and June 2018. The starting point was a first formative meeting in Bose where the groups have been initiated to the knowledge of the involved dioceses, concentrated in the south of Italy: Oppido Mamertina Palmi and Catanzaro-Squillace in Calabria, Gravina in Apulia, Monreale in Sicily.

In the following months, the teams carried out site-inspections (at least two), setting up a participatory method in order to understand and to register the needs and expectations of the communities about their future church.

Moreover, a meeting took place in Rome in April to assess the process and to share the experience between the groups. Representatives of the parishes (priests or bishops) and the local referents of the office for the design of new churches were present, as well as the representative of the National Office for the Ecclesiastic Cultural Heritage. The activities and the critical issues have been discussed and analyzed, in order to set the following stages of the project.

Participatory Experience in the Dioceses

During the on-site inspections, the teams worked with the communities through different types of activities identified in three categories: analysis, training, and sharing. With the context and with the community, the groups worked to understand the cultural and religious traditions, the habits of the people, and the use of their current church. Then they started to collect technical and programmatic information about the spaces needed and expected. This data collection has been done in different ways, mainly with surveys, on-site inspections, archival research, and meetings with the different actors involved in the life of the parish (teachers of Christian initiation, economic managers of the church, pastoral council, etc.).

A second aspect of the on-site work of the teams has been the formative moments about art, architecture, and liturgy. The groups selected different categories of people to work with, mainly focusing on children and youth, considering them as the users of the future church and also as a vehicle to reach the parents and adults.

The principal aim of the training was to define a common language and to give some tools to the community in order to understand the project that will be conceived for their church. Concerning art and architecture, some presentation and meetings were conducted to analyze the essential elements of contemporary and sacred art and architecture. The meetings were supported by slideshows, workshops, collective activities, and guided tours to the churches of the context. In addition, the liturgical aspects have been treated in the training activities.

Moreover, the permanence of the groups in the dioceses permitted various moments of conviviality with the community and an active participation to the life of the community and to the celebrations. These moments of sharing, consisting also in public meetings, helped to reach the majority of people and to get the whole community involved in the process.

In the four cases, the response of the community has been positive; the participation has been wide and enthusiastic.

An Innovative Approach to Design with Communities

The approach attempted by the Italian Bishops’ Conference aims at guaranteeing a recognized role to the communities in the design process. The idea of including the record of the needs and expectations of the community—derived from the participatory activities—in the Preliminary Document for the Design of new churches elevates it to a preliminary request, with equal importance of the programmatic, economic, spatial, and technical requirements. The “participation teams” can be considered as independent actors of the design process, as contributors for the structuring of the competition documents.

The multidisciplinary composition of the teams assured consideration of the needs of the community from several points of view and the recording of responses concerning different aspects, not only the architectural ones. Moreover, this approach “forces” a real dialogue that could help the designer to conceive the right project for the specific place and cultural context, not just a generic sacred building.

A lack of a clear and shared ideas between the National Office, the Local Office of the Dioceses, and the parish about the tools, the purpose, and the methodology of the process generated some confusion in the process. For this reason, the process had different impacts according to the specific context. However, it clearly demonstrated the effectiveness and the importance of the work of the professionals as intermediary among the different actors involved in such processes and in connection with the community.

From ‘House of God’ to ‘House of God’s People’

The discrete passage from the church as “House of God” to the “House of God’s People”—demanded by the Sacrosanctum Concilium—has never been translated into precise norms and regulations that could assign a tangible role to communities in the design processes of the new churches. In this context, the CLI/LAB2 experience can be considered as an innovative starting point for a journey that will lead to religious architecture built with the community and for the community. The community is considered not just as the group of faithful parishioners, but also as the whole civil community of the inhabitants who will live the presence of the parish complex in the territorial context. Even within this preliminary stage, several aspects have to be deepened. The approach proposed by the Italian Episcopal Conference could be considered as the fundamental premise for the design of every new church in Italy, becoming a norm and a best practice.

The management of the process would allow the parish and the urban community to participate in the design and building process from its very beginning, in order to strengthen community awareness and to conceive a building that would be coherent and integrated in the context and in social reality. The design of the church is then seen as a shared process, where the relation between the different professional skills is managed in order to promote the positive contribution of each person involved.

This vision could give back to the church the role of key element in the urban and rural context, able to support social and cultural relation from the moment of its conception on, becoming a place of identity for the entire civil and religious community. As in the words of Pope Francis, “…we need to recognize the fundamental values of human communities, values in the name of which we can and must cooperate, build and dialogue, pardon and grow; this will allow different voices to unite in creating a melody of sublime nobility and beauty.”

*Professionals involved included Enrica Aselle, Jonnabelle Asis, Alessandro Bellini, Jacopo Benedetti, Marcello Branzanti, Emanuele Cavallini, Luca Chiappetta, Luca Corona, Francesca Daprà, Giulia De Lucia, Maurizio Di Rienzo, Giacomo Fuk, Alberto Gianfreda, Davide Fusari, Luca Girello, Bartomeu Jané, Vittorio Pio Incampo, Serena Laborante, Sofia Novelli, Marco Riso, Rocco Rosi, Elisabetta Tagliabue, Giorgio Valli, Giovanni Zaccaria. Tutors and reviewers involved included Don Valerio Pennasso, CEI; Andrea Longhi, Politecnico di Torino; Luigi Bartolomei, Università di Bologna; Elia Fiore, Monastero di Bose; Andrea Zappacosta, BBCC CEI; Giuseppe Giccone BBCC CEI.

AA.VV., Abitare, celebrare, trasformare. Processi partecipativi tra liturgia e architettura, Bose, Qiqajon, 2018.

Andrea Longhi, Storie di chiese storie di comunità. Progetti cantieri architetture, Roma, Gangemi Editore, 2017.

Le chiese di quest’ultimo lustro, a cura di Luigi Bartolomei, IL GIORNALE DELL’ARCHITETTURA, 2017.

Emanuele Cavallini, an architect who specializes in topics of sacred art and architecture, is a member of the research center “Architettura e Liturgia” and editor of the Magazine of the Ecclesiastic Cultural Heritage, Thema, and can be reached at: Francesca Daprà, an architect and student at the Politecnico di Milano, specializes in research on parish complexes in the the contemporary city, and can be contacted at: Giulia De Lucia, an architect who focuses on the risks to religious architectural heritage, conducts research on architecture for liturgy and can be reached at: