AFTER A LONG CITY bus ride traversing the outskirts of Rome, including a few transfers and a bit of walking, I arrived just in time to hear the churchyard gate clang shut. This was no simple clicking of a latch, but a resounding, ringing crash—not the kind of sound that left any doubt as to whether there might be some other way in. There wasn’t. This churchyard wall didn’t get where it is without some forethought. Much of the wall is smooth-faced and uncommonly pure white concrete, broken in places by stretches of tightly spaced, white-painted steel bars. The heavy swinging gate is made up of similar bars. It’s the suddenly completed unity of concrete and steel that speaks with such force when the gate closes just before noon on weekdays.
Visible between the bars, within the wall’s firm enclosure, lies a pristine white plaza of travertine. Unnaturally pure and stark, its placid surface is broken only occasionally by a stray leaf, and by the sparkling white church itself, which rises abruptly like an iceberg above dead still waters of white stone. Concrete, glass, and steel are frozen in a precise yet fluid composition. Like an iceberg, the church dazzles and overwhelms while hinting at what is hidden below the surface. Yet even floating powerfully on its sea of stone, securely encompassed by concrete and steel, the strikingly contemporary church seems somehow fragile, even vulnerable.
Are the walls there to protect this pure form from the creeping influence of graffiti? And in doing so, are they there to protect the pride of the American architect? Maybe, maybe not. The wall isn’t much taller than a pedestrian. Surely a couple of determined teens packing cans of spray paint could hoist one another over the top some dark evening. But this doesn’t appear ever to have happened. After almost a decade of use, the church maintains a fresh, crisp look—while having settled comfortably into its streetscape.
The church of Dio Padre Misericordioso Parish, commonly known as Jubilee Church, was commissioned by the Vatican as a gift to the people of Rome to commemorate the Jubilee year of 2000. From an international competition whose invited architects included Tadao Ando, Santiago Calatrava, Peter Eisenman, Günter Behnisch, and Frank Gehry, Richard Meier’s plan was selected to be realized in the working-class residential community of Tor Tre Teste. And thus under the pontificate of John Paul II, a Jewish American architect with a distinctly contemporary approach was given the opportunity to design a Catholic parish church in Rome.
Meier wasn’t thinking about icebergs, though. He envisioned a fishing boat, something familiar to Christ’s early disciples. The triune God, in the form of three nested sails of white concrete, billows above the congregation, guiding and protecting Peter and the people of the church on their voyage of faith as they sail on into the twenty-first century. The allusion, though appropriate and appealing, isn’t the kind that immediately explains itself.
Viewed from outside, the Jubilee Church offers few familiar symbols. Only a simple, angular bell tower and a small, unadorned cross at the gate allude to a liturgical purpose—unless the dramatic form itself can be said to speak expressionistically of faith. Concrete is balanced against glass, while dynamic curves are balanced among angular stacks of space. The form invites the eye to move across its surfaces without ever suggesting a place to settle. No sooner is the eye drawn one way than it’s pulled another.
The mind, too, if so inclined, wanders when confronted with this complex form. Bold and dramatic, the church’s rational, ordered composition seems at first graspable, then elusive. What, after all, are the three sails up to? Each curved wall is a rectangular cut-out from a spherical form, yes? Concentric? Yes. And all three meet the ground at right angles as they descend in size from innermost to outermost, yes? But they’re not merely rectangular cut-outs of spheres: each has a rectangular void at its base, so these shells are really more like arches than walls. The innermost shell, the largest, defines the edge of the sanctuary, and through its arched opening provides access to a side chapel. The middle shell defines volumes of space within the chapel. The outer and smallest shell frames a long, knee-high window that allows south light to spill across the chapel floor. Do the three arches serve a common purpose? No. Do they descend regularly in size, or offset regularly in location? No, apparently not. Much of the church form has this quality of inviting understanding while resisting thorough explanation, of presenting rigorous order but only taking it so far.
This tendency to resist final answers isn’t really troubling though, because the form has a quiet and self-assured way of not imposing questions so much as allowing them to be asked. This isn’t always the way bold architecture works. Many buildings confront us with an obvious question—“Wow, how did they do that?”—and then proceed to answer it in their finer details, giving clues about construction, hints of history, process, and ingenuity. Many of Rome’s ancient ruins and grand structures do this. They both inspire questions about construction and tease the imagination toward working out partial answers.
But Meier’s church is not “Wow, how did they do that?” architecture. It welcomes the imagination without commanding its attention. It’s not a feat of construction that demands to be explained. This isn’t to say that the construction accomplishments aren’t impressive. They are, if you’re inclined to consider them. The curving shells assembled from steel frames with buffed concrete skins are each little engineering marvels. From the elaborate means of stacking the panels during construction to the extraordinary efforts undergone to achieve concrete surfaces so white and smooth, this is technology that’s content to reside outside of awareness without making an issue of itself. The matte, pure, curving surfaces, their finish and their joints, by means of their precision and predictability, direct attention away from themselves and back toward the larger composition.
Throughout the church the same care and the same sparse white aesthetic preside: white stone, white concrete, white plaster, gleaming metal and glass, all with the same precise attention to detail. But inside, warm elements of wood are introduced as well: pews, doors, and screen walls. Liturgical furnishings are simple but strong sculptures of stone in soft neutral tones. A Madonna in a side chapel allows a small splash of soft color. A few thoughtfully placed cut flowers present the only pure colors to be found.
These carefully assembled materials are illuminated by daylight entering from the east and west, as well as skylights to the north. To the south, the concrete sails shade the sanctuary from direct sun. Light from the east is screened through the nave and organ loft before reaching the worship space, and light from the west enters through and around an abstract backdrop behind the altar that displays the cross. The cross itself is subtly backlit by a small portal of daylight behind.
Approached from the formal center aisle, the cross is a bit off-center and lit from the side. The light appears to skew across the space from right to left. But not everyone will approach down the center aisle. From the back of the church, with a sweep to the left, the nave opens casually upon the sanctuary and a side chapel, and viewed from here, the cross is centered over the small window. This south side of the sanctuary, away from the church’s administrative wing, just removed from the center aisle and tucked below the embrace of the curving white shells, has a relaxed feel that suits daily worship activities.
The comfortable coexistence of formal and casual typifies the Jubilee Church. The composition of space and form could be read with equal ease as strict and controlled or free and relaxed. Depending on one’s attachment to traditional placement of the elements of worship, the layout of the sanctuary could seem either surprisingly faithful or troublingly ignorant. In many ways the layout is in fact very traditional, but those who expect an apse to the east or the tabernacle in the center will be disappointed to find that liberties have been taken. Certainly some observers were disappointed to see the Vatican invite only architects with very contemporary approaches to compete for the commission.
How then does this twenty-first-century sculpture fit into Rome, a city of history with a wealth of churches and multitudes of pilgrims? It’s the nature of architecture that questions of this sort are maddeningly difficult to answer. The dearly held imperatives of church architecture are many: contemporary church design should incorporate and build upon the rich visual tradition that precedes it; churches should be designed by adherents to the faith of the worshipers; a Christian church should be easily recognizable by a prominent cross; or, as it certainly seemed to me, churches should not hide behind strong walls.
The arguments both for and against such conventions seem to come from the same source. The case in favor goes something like this: Because buildings engage a wide community of users, they have an obligation to defer to the collective understanding, shared experiences, traditions, and values of that community. To do otherwise is to risk alienating or marginalizing significant groups of users. Everyone needs to be able to negotiate the experience of a building, so deference to established expectations is only appropriate. Besides, many important considerations in the design of buildings have already been thoroughly thought out. Only foolishness or hubris would discard established wisdom and deprive the wider community of its benefits. Right? The case for convention is based on an ethical appeal to learning and the greater good of the community.
Ironically, an appeal to community is also used to undercut formal rules: if the community’s strength is in part its diversity, that diversity often resists reductive formulations of what’s best. We each bring a different set of skills and expectations to a building. We all approach buildings at different levels of use, understanding, and meaning. So to select from those varied approaches a right approach, and to prescribe it, dismisses the presumably legitimate experiences of many users. The setting up of conventions, established on the grounds of populism, starts to look like elitism.
There probably isn’t a good way around this tension. In literature, music, the visual arts, and so on, most of us find our tastes maturing quietly over time. We learn to enjoy things that eluded us before. We outgrow things we once enjoyed. So any building, like any poem, is likely to speak to some better than others, depending on where they’re at and where they’ve come from. Of course, we’re free to put a poem aside until we’re ready for it, while buildings have a troublesome way of coming at us whether we’re ready for them or not.
Fortunately, we’re free to talk of what we like rather than what should be. Liking assumes a personal perspective without apology, and permits the listener to weigh things for herself. As a measure of art, liking doesn’t deny the concept of excellence; it merely approaches it with a posture of humility.
When I heard the gate clang shut at Dio Padre Misericordioso, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all. And once the ringing subsided, I might have expected a stark, accusing silence, but that’s not what I heard.
The clang was quickly followed by the nearby sound of a car door firmly shutting after an infant had been strapped into the backseat by her mother. Then came the sound of a car trunk being closed after the day’s groceries had been lifted out. On apartment balconies above me, I heard screen doors open and shut. There are lots of balconies in that neighborhood, all of them full. Full with plants, and flags, and furniture, and individuality, and what looks to be a quiet kind of pride. The community of Tor Tre Teste hums around the church: kids playing, dogs barking, moms being moms, some of them parishioners, no doubt. All in all, lives being lived.
The neighborhood is made up of dozens of international-style apartment buildings huddled side by side, each long and horizontal enough to seem low despite being several stories high. Like freight cars in a crowded train yard, they appear uniform, but closer inspection reveals a quirky individuality. Tor Tre Teste has a lot of things community planners in America strive to achieve: mixed-income residential density, active street-level businesses, well-used parks connected by trails, a daily bustle of activity.
Nestled just a short stroll from the church is a rugby field with team facilities and spectator stands, all surrounded by a competition running track. It’s a nice field, and a nice track, used with obvious appreciation by aspiring athletes young and old, skilled and not-yet skilled. Surrounding the facilities is a tall chain-link fence with a gate. The gate regulates hours of access and gives both importance and order to the activities inside. When the gate is closed, the fields wait, ready for the community, and when it’s opened, the fields become a focus of activity and life. The gate and fence seem to indicate that what happens inside is valued. They create a respect for a cherished shared amenity.
Fences, walls, doors, balconies, and gates make community living possible by allowing public and private spaces to exist together with sensible boundaries. They provide an order and rhythm to the lives of a multitude of neighbors. Sure, there are a lot of ways to experience a closed gate, some of them negative, like my initial impression at the church, but the hurried impulse of a tourist seeking unfettered access to an architectural curiosity is probably not the best measure of a gate’s value. When we aren’t rushing, it’s possible to grow, and for our perspective to change.
Mid-afternoon, following a scheduled respite from the daily activities that began before dawn, the churchyard gate at Dio Padre Misericordioso swings open again, inviting the community back in. There’s work to be done, masses to celebrate, groups to meet, rosaries to be prayed, and within the gates a busy community with an order and rhythm of life to share. It’s a life buzzing with whispered prayers and punctuated by calling bells.
It’s easy to say that churches should not stand behind gated walls, but this is Rome, where throngs of tourists mill about in those ways tourists do. And this is a parish church with a flock going about the business of sharing gifts and needs. Even today, recalling the sounds of Tor Tre Teste brings this back to me. And now, when in my memory I hear the churchyard gate ring shut for a daily afternoon break, I like it.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.