The city of Leopoli in Ukraine is being simultaneously built and bombed. And building has even continued during the most intense period of the war, as sirens wailed in the background. The story of the Church of Divine Providence, designed by architect Mario Botta, is one of hope and a deep appreciation of the gift of life. It’s a symbol of how architecture presupposes a positive attitude to the future. During the 2022 Cersaie exhibition in Bologna, Swiss-born architect Botta told the epic story that has led to the current construction phase of this religious building, part of a larger complex that includes a monastery and a multipurpose center for children, established by Don Egidio Montanari for the Don Orione congregation. Building Peace was the title of the conference, moderated by architectural historian, architect, and professor Fulvio Irace, which concluded with a discussion of numerous projects – other churches, a mosque, a synagogue, and so on – by Mario Botta, all of which are united by the architect’s deep commitment to society.
“Work continued even as the bombs were falling,” said Botta. “The lantern, a small inverted dome, was successfully positioned on top of the dome amid the sirens and bombs. It’s amazing to think that during a time of war, people can still work, but it was the workers themselves who had the motivation to continue: ‘We have to survive,’ they’d say. ‘For us, work is food for our children and families. That’s why we work, even during a war.’ Through the media, we’re used to seeing disasters, destruction, death. The worst of the war. But there’s another side to war: survival. And it’s a very moving side, because, despite all the struggles, we continue to live. We continue to have hope – a hope for life that’s possibly even stronger than in peacetime.”
Still in progress, this long project began in 2009 with the surveying of the site made available for the building by the Sons of Divine Providence, whose aim was to restore dignity and services to disadvantaged people living on the outskirts of the city. It was an excellent opportunity for new professional experiences and exchange as people worked on a strategy for urban rehabilitation with measures, proportions, and materials aimed to improve quality of life, especially for children, people with disabilities, and the disadvantaged, all of whom are the future users of the multipurpose center. The first phase of the work was completed in 2014, with the construction of the monastery, which will be connected to the church and the multifunction center via an arcade. The arcade will be constructed during the third phase of the work, along with the preparation of outdoor areas and playing fields. Currently, therefore, the project is in its middle stage, involving the construction of the church, which will seat around 400 according to the traditions of the Eastern liturgy and for celebrations of the Ukrainian-Greek Catholic rite. This explains the presence of the iconostasis.
The church is a single volume with a central plan, ten chapels around the perimeter, and a roughly finished dome that allows light to enter. The dome reflects a “desire for openness,” added the architect, “such as in the Pantheon.” The pattern of alternating full and empty spaces created by the glass and concrete is attenuated by a finish of wooden strips.
Sitting on top of the dome is a golden lantern: “The gold finish was almost a surprise the way it came about,” says Botta, “and the story behind it is quite moving. We recognized that it would have been appropriate to use gold for the lantern, which was going to make its surface age very well. Real gold, that is. So, amid a war, the local people offered their own gold objects to have them melted down. The lantern, therefore, is a gift from the community of these plain suburbs, who can now see their own generosity in the finished dome. All the gold donated was first examined and then melted down. The dome speaks to, and of, the community and their wealth.” Certainly their moral wealth.
Conference moderator Fulvio Irace drew a parallel between this church, including in terms of the values behind it, and Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence, which is likewise jealously guarded by the local people. As Botta said, “You can’t build againstother people, only for other people.” Building means creating and giving to a community something that wasn’t there before. It’s a plastic example of a gesture of offering and of truth: “Architecture is a mirror, a true and sometimes merciless one, on reality,” continued Botta. “The architect’s job is to transform nature into culture.”
The Lviv complex is an example of the architect’s ethical approach to both his profession and society, as are the other projects featured at Cersaie: the Cymbalist synagogue and Jewish heritage center in Tel Aviv; Noah’s Ark in Jerusalem, where Palestinian and Israeli children can play together; the Namyang Basilica in Seoul; the Yinchuan mosque; and many other religious buildings. All of them are non-political ways of building peace and further reasons why it’s worth picking up a pencil and designing.
Location: Leopoli, Ukraine
Architect: Mario Botta Architetti
Completion: in progress
Client: Don Egidio Montanari per la congregazione religiosa Don Orione
Please refer to the individual images in the gallery to look through the photo credits