A Church for Mankind
A huge solitary white cylinder stands against the flat skyline in the open countryside that is Italy’s northern Po valley plain around Lodi, near Milan. This is the first impression you get of the parish church at Dresano by Neapolitan architects Corvino and Multari, winners of the competition by invitation called by the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) in 2009. Yet the uncompromising stereometric form is part of a much-researched, complex program that had to resolve at least three problematic issues facing architects of places of worship. The result is an exemplary lesson in method and how potential problems can be transformed into opportunities to bring about one of the most mature, meaningful new constructions in a sector of such fundamental importance in Italy. Problems Top on the list is the very fact of designing a piece of religious architecture, a delicate problem-fraught brief for a number of reasons. First, there is the symbolic charge attached to any religious building. Then, there are the inevitable comparisons that will be made with the many Modernist masters who have successfully reinterpreted a tradition going back thousands of years that has given the world so many extraordinary achievements. Finally, there is the progressive secularization of contemporary society that has obliged religion to take on a different dimension and led the catholic church to rethink the way places of worship are used and hence articulated, with the need for new forms to combine an unchanged symbolic value and the new liturgical approach, continuing tradition but at the same time embracing current needs. The second-order problem is the whole question of the place of modern buildings of worship in our modern world. Alongside its mission as a place of contemplation and introspection, a church is the focal point of its pastoral ministry but also the center of other activities involving the community. This is why here, the cloister is no longer an enclosed monastic space but part of the churchyard, scene of collective activities in a community fabric lacking places of civic socialization. The third-order problem is the church building’s relationship with context, here a considerable headache, given the particularly non-descript landscape and absence of any striking natural or architectural reference points. Which led the architects to carry out painstaking research into the area’s past in order to find some. As well as taking their cue from the ancient farmhouses that speak of an age-old peasant culture, the bedrock of this northern plain, the architects also refer to an interesting piece of the past they unearthed and took as a precedent for their building: the small 18th Century church of San Giorgio Martire, whose cube-shaped central plan includes an inner circular volume created by a series of radial pillars supporting the building’s dome. Themes Redolent with symbolism, the circulum shape chosen recalls the cosmos and divine perfection, but also, for the Christian tradition, the power of prayer and the capacity of the scriptures to give “order” to the world, the circle being a metaphor for the chaos of earthly life turned into a harmonious whole. The reference is to a tradition rooted in Plato’s Timaeus that led Alberti to view the circle as the ideal form for the central plan of the “Christian temple”. However, the use of the circle here does not just make reference to ancient cosmogony. Corvino and Multari’s brief made explicit that the church should reflect the new idea of the Church given by the Second Vatican Council concluded in the mid 1960s, whereby the celebration of the mass has become a community experience of the Word and the Sacrament, in a return to the original meaning of the Greek ekklēsía, which in the ancient polis meant a gathering of the whole community. The circle shape is therefore a concise, highly effective image of an assembly of equals in prayer, a gathering of brethren enjoying the same relationship with God, each at an “equidistant point from the center”. Another highly sensitive theme is the dialectic between a circle plan and the axial layout required for the entrance (here to the south) to be diametrically opposite the altar, towards which all the pews face. The dilemma is solved by placing all the sacramental furniture - the monstrance, or ostentorium, the baptismal font and confessional, but also the bracket for the wooden statue of the Madonna delle Grazie, the organ and the side chapel - outside this axis so as to avoid the risk of the longitudinal plan overshadowing the central role of the circular hall. The result is the clear perception of the centrifugal tension being countered by the re-direction towards a single point of a series of objects and activities, which, although single points in space, are held together in a unified whole by the enveloping circle. This circle is contained within another circle. Which brings us to the third theme. Like the ancient church of San Giorgio Martire, here too the structural elements stand apart from the perimeter wall, creating an open ring and leaving the “real” walled circle of the ambulatory to encircle the body of the church and rise well beyond the lenticular profile of the roof. This adds a further theme to those of the circulum and the contrasting central and axial layout: architecture within architecture. This leads to yet another theme: the double shell envelope. Corvino and Multari make the ambulatory look as if it has been “dug out” from the perimeter wall, the resultant space a walkway but also letting in the light. For it is especially this higher encircling volume, its profile converging towards the center of the body of the church, that captures the light and filters it down through a strip of X-shaped reinforced concrete elements serving as both diaphragm between interior and exterior and an expressive textured connection between church and cloister. The same structural elements are found on the rectangular base supporting the cylindrical volume. The protective iron oxide coating gives them the brick-brown color of the old farmhouses dotting the countryside, a reference to the time-honored history of the place. Et Verbum caro factum est. Et habitavit in nobis (And the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us) The architecture needs nothing else. It is an extraordinary space. The stereometric relationships and use of light in the assembly hall prove yet again that when put to masterful use, the simple geometries of archetypical forms can delivery semantic excellence and symbolic force. Devoid of any superfluous decorative add-ons, the clean elegant lines of both architecture and furnishings make it a place of prayer and contemplation. Above the entrance, a large burnished bronze plaque by one of Italy’s most famous artists, Nino Longobardi, is engraved with a gigantic cross. Resembling both cave drawing and metropolitan tag, it proclaims the very essence of what this architecture is all about. Christ is not there. Longobardi has removed the simulacra of Christ’s body on the cross - an ineffably lightweight cast aluminum figure - to the innocent purity of the church itself. He is no longer on the cross, crucified; He has descended from the cross to rest within the church of mankind, His place of preference.