A Blessed Event: Communauté des Diaconesses de Saint-Loup
David Sokol -- Interior Design, 6/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
site: pompaples, switzerland
As nuns go, the ones at Switzerland's Communauté des Diaconesses de Saint-Loup are tenderhearted and open-minded like The Sound of Music's Mother Superior rather than dour like Doubt martinet Sister Aloysius. Which was definitely a blessing when Localarchitecture built them a temporary chapel. "I've never had such good clients. They were intrigued immediately by our experimentation," partner Antoine Robert-Grandpierre says.
An embrace of Localarchitecture's synthesis of disciplines and cultures is typical of the deaconesses' long-standing ability to reconcile seeming opposites. Clad in cerulean habits, the nuns belong to one of the world's only Protestant orders, and the Saint-Loup campus was established on the edge of tiny Pompaples in 1852, just 16 years after Theodor Fliedner founded the Kaiserswerther Diakonie.
By 2007, the deaconesses' home base needed a little loving care: Maison-Mère, the main residence and chapel overlooking a wheat field, required an overhaul. Localarchitecture and a frequent collaborator, Bureau d'Architecture Danilo Mondada, won a competition for the renovation and broke ground the following summer. While the deaconesses had definitely determined which neighboring buildings could accommodate additional beds during the renovation, the solution of using a tent or a shipping container as a temporary venue for daily religious services remained tentative.
Rejecting a tent as inappropriate for Pompaples's mountain climate and calling a shipping container "not convincing" as a spiritual space, Robert-Grandpierre persuaded the deaconesses that a pavilion fabricated from plywood would make a lofty spiritual environment without sacrificing an earthbound budget. His studio had worked on such modular structures before. For this higher calling, however, he turned to PhDs from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne for extra help.
Ibois is the school's engineering lab devoted to high-tech wood products and new construction methods. Browsing the talent on display, Robert-Grandpierre homed in on his former professor Hani Buri and civil engineer Yves Weinand, who apply principles of origami to plywood—folding those sheets into a structure just as strong as if more costly posts and beams had been used. A spate of paper maquettes and computer files soon followed. The final product comprises plywood cut on a CNC router the size of a pickup truck and assembled to form a 1,400-square-foot building.
Although the weatherproof shell of the one-room chapel resembles an accordion bellows or the limestone ridges surrounding Pompaples, Robert-Grandpierre says the design really interprets the elements of traditional church architecture through the lens of origami. The sparsely furnished interior's exposed plywood facets evoke fluted columns and barrel vaults. Visible knots in the grain could stand in for plaster ornament. Outside, the crystalline shapes compress buttresses and gargoyles into a single abstraction.
At each end, the building's window walls also beg church comparisons, as acrylic panels sport a random array of pine mullions in the manner of stained glass. At night, the glow from prayer services beckons. Daytime reveals a coppery mesh that, when struck by sunlight, turns the clear windows opaque.
The multifaceted chapel should remain in use through 2009. But that's not the end of the story. This unusual project has even galvanized Buri and Weinand to spin laboratory research into a new business venture, Shel Architecture, Engineering, and Production Design.
Photography by Milo Keller.
THROUGHOUT TILLY HOLZINDUSTRIE GESELLSCHAFT: PLYWOOD SHEATHING. NOTZ PLASTICS: WINDOW PANELING. FERRARI: WINDOW MESH. SLV BY DECLIC: LIGHTING CONSULTANT. LAMBELET: WOODWORK.
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