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San Paolo Parish Complex

Massimiliano & Doriana Fuksas

Many Italian churches have become hallowed monuments, cherished for their beauty, but seldom used for worship. Museums have supplanted cathedrals as the principal locus of uplift, and sports have displaced religion as the thread that binds strangers together. Few contemporary architects of significance are impelled by faith to create new churches, but the aesthetic challenge is irresistible. The program allows a wide range of expression and draws on a two-thousand-year legacy. To a far greater degree than other building types, a church aspires to the eternal. It’s an exercise in the sublime, and the interplay of structure, space, and light. Some of the greatest buildings of our secular age, from Ronchamp to Peter Zumthor’s chapels and SOM’s Cathedral of Christ the Light are consecrated to Catholicism, even as the institution loses ground to a diversity of irrational beliefs. Matching these achievements is the parish church of San Paolo in the Umbrian town of Foligno, an austere masterpiece by the Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas Studio. When they won the competition in 2001, the architects were offered a site near the earthquake-ravaged historic core but they chose to build on the western edge, in a developing neighborhood, where everything was new and the building would stand out as a distinctive object in the landscape. Approaching from the main road to the north, it appears as an impenetrable cube of pale poured concrete, linked to a long low block of parish offices and the priest’s house by a short span of frosted glass. The base of the block is recessed above the ground on three sides to lighten its mass, and five angular openings are cut into the east and west facades. To the south, a piazza that will serve as a gathering place for residents slopes gently up to a broad band of clear glass, with a cross marking the point of entry. The interior is a box within a box. An aedicula of lightweight concrete on a steel frame is suspended from structural beams in the...

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