The 16th Venice Architecture Biennale — review

Vatican chapels: Pavilion of the Holy See, San Giorgio Maggiore

Words by Francesca Perry

In the quiet, hidden-away, wooded gardens on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the Pavilion of the Holy See — the Vatican’s first-ever Venice Architecture Biennale contribution — takes the form of 10 folly-like chapels (and a chapel-like exhibition pavilion) designed by an array of esteemed international architects.

These ‘Vatican Chapels’ all respond to a single reference point from curator (and architectural historian) Francesco Dal Co: Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Chapel (1920) in the Cemetery of Stockholm, envisaged as a place of encounter and meditation within a forest.

The architects were invited to explore the chapel typology, and what an exploration it is — despite its peaceful, papal context, this ‘pavilion’ is a full-throttle embrace of materiality and architectural form. No doubt about it, the architects have instilled grace, meditation and monumentality in their designs, but in such a way that harnesses materials with abandon. This is no surprise, as the chapels are funded and constructed by (mostly Italian) major manufacturing brands — from steel manufacturer Maeg to ceramic tile company Panariagroup.

Sean Godsell. With Maeg, ZintekSean Godsell. With Maeg, Zintek

Javier Corvalán. With SimeonJavier Corvalán. With Simeon

The chapels are presented essentially as collaborative productions between architect and brand; in this way, there is a jarring presence of commerciality beneath the saintly sheen. Beyond this, one forgets about the Biennale theme entirely; despite the (very welcome) fact that this garden, unlike the Giardini, is not ticketed, it’s difficult to see how the pavilion’s chapels express the concept of freespace. Catholic places of worship may sometimes be open to all, but not all feel welcome in them, and it would be foolish to say that the spaces encourage unmitigated freedom.

Putting meaning aside, it’s an impressive and beautiful celebration of architectural design. There is huge variety among the chapels — in part driven by the dominant sponsor brand, yes, but also in the imagination of the designers (although it was disappointing to see that only two out of 10 chapels had female architects).

Terunobu Fujimori. With Barth Interni, LignoAlpTerunobu Fujimori. With Barth Interni, LignoAlp

Andrew Berman. With Moretti, TernaAndrew Berman. With Moretti, Terna

Smiljan Radic. With Moretti, Saint-Gobain ItaliaSmiljan Radic. With Moretti, Saint-Gobain Italia

While some powerfully shape an inner space of quiet contemplation — Terunobu Fujimori’s earthy and magical Cross Chapel, or Andrew Berman Architect’s minimalist light-orientated chapel — others deconstruct the chapel form into something more playful, poetic or surprising. Sean Godsell’s industrial, tower-like structure boasts an altar made of zinc and entrances resembling garage doors — but step inside, and you are bathed in a bright, golden, transportative light. Carla Juaçaba’s chapel can’t even be described as a building, consisting merely of bold stainless-steel bars crossed and bent over one another in the grass. Javier Corvalán’s suspended design, feeling like a visiting spaceship, is as much about technical wow factor as it is about spiritual spatiality.

This is surely the biggest (and likely most expensive) national contribution in this year’s Architecture Biennale — and it is from the smallest nation. The money thrown at it, and the big company branding, may unintentionally undermine any spiritual ideals, but then again the Catholic Church has never been shy of indulgent architecture and design. Allow yourself a break from the over-intellectualising of the Biennale exhibitions, and come to San Giorgio Maggiore for the pure pleasure of beautiful architecture.

Carla Juaçaba. With Secco Sistemi Andrew Berman. With Moretti, Terna EduardoCarla Juaçaba. With Secco Sistemi.

Eduardo Souto de Moura. With Laboratorio MorselettoEduardo Souto de Moura. With Laboratorio Morseletto

Francesco Cellini. With PanariagroupFrancesco Cellini. With Panariagroup

Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats. With Saint-Gobain ItaliaRicardo Flores and Eva Prats. With Saint-Gobain Italia

Norman Foster. With Maeg, TecnoNorman Foster. With Maeg, Tecno

The exhibition pavilion by Francesco Magnani and Traudy Pelzel. With AlpiThe exhibition pavilion by Francesco Magnani and Traudy Pelzel. With Alpi


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