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‘For Totihue chapel, Gonzalo Mardones interprets the child’s simple drawing, disregarding conventions in the process’

AR Faith 2016 Winner: the restoration of a 200-year-old silo and addition of a modest chapel make a fitting addition the rural Chilean context

Situated a hundred kilometres from the capital, Totihue, Central Valley is no more than a strip town along a dirt road with a row of inquilinos (tenants’ houses for farm workers) on one side, and an old casa patronal (‘house of the boss’) on the other. Such a mix of opulence and austerity is a common trait of the rural fabric of Chile.

Lacking a place of worship, a 200-year-old adobe silo was used by the local community for more than three decades. From 1972, the donated structure became the answer for Catholic gathering and prayer, although badly deteriorated and inhabited by bats. After the latest and largest earthquake on 27 February 2010 (8.8 on the Richter scale), the silo was substantially damaged, and its role as place of worship forbidden due to the risk of collapse.

‘When people have been shaken by an earthquake and suffered the loss of friends and family, houses and schools, bridges and supplies; hope and faith bring them together’

Totihue Chapel Siteplan

Totihue Chapel Siteplan

Site plan - click to expand

The construction of a new chapel and the restoration of the silo was the combined effort of the architect, Gonzalo Mardones, the rural priest, Iván Guajardo, the discreet financial contribution of the inhabitants and congregation of Totihue, and the support of neighbours. Mardones is a director of AIS (Ayuda a la Iglesia que Sufre: Aid to the Suffering Church) – a private initiative to restore places of worship in towns and villages affected by the earthquake, under a campaign called ‘Capillas de Emergencia’ (emergency chapels). Totihue Chapel is the most substantial of 45 previous experiments in ‘tent-chapels’: pop-up worship spaces in the region in which a white fabric – echoing the protectiveness of Mary’s Veil – covered a surface large enough to offer Mass.

The chapels represent a crusade of ‘soul-reconstruction’, as Mardones describes it, after the country’s natural disaster. While the logical response to the earthquake from the government focused on the rebuilding of houses and public infrastructure, the chapels offered a place for sorrow and hope; a site for remembering and empathy, redrawing territories from a spiritual standpoint. When people have been shaken by an earthquake and suffered the loss of friends and family, houses and schools, bridges and supplies; hope and faith bring them together.

photo  1

photo 1

Rafaelito’s design for a new chapel, which won first prize in a local competition

After the earthquake, the local children were asked to imagine and draw a chapel for the area. Rafaelito – a young boy who recently died of a chronic illness – drew the picture that won first prize. The six-year-old’s drawing depicts a silo amid lush green grass, and next to it a new gabled barn as a place of prayer beneath birds flying in a blue sky. 

The silo, and likewise the attached barn structure, are persistent images in Chilean rural landscapes. In the design of the chapel, Mardones interprets the simplicity of the child’s vision, disregarding conventions in the process: the industrial expression of the 100-seat barn-chapel reflects its rural setting, however alien to the traditions of religious building.

Totihue Chapel Plan

Totihue Chapel Plan

Floor plan - click to expand

Free of external programmatic complexity or layout constrictions, the chapel became a platform for Mardones to experiment with the rigorous use of materials, the manipulation of light, and proportions and geometry. The same metallic envelope wraps all three elements – the silo, the barn and the bell tower – changing only in colour from white to black. The bell tower, the third element, is of the same elementary volumetric purity. There is an unexpected contrast on entering: the interior is clad entirely in wood donated by a local manufacturer, providing a warmer and more comforting atmosphere. Natural light enhances the experience, introduced primarily through a large window above the altar affording the view of the silo as backdrop. A further 14 small windows halfway up both sides of the walls indirectly illuminate the congregation. In line with the project’s collaborative approach, the community has decorated the spaces between windows with religious imagery.

For Mardones, geometry is fundamental to architecture, and the strict dimensions of the silo – 10.5 metres in diameter and height – acted as a starting point for the length, width and height of the other structures. The silo determined the extension of the new chapel, which began as a 10.5m-sided square for the congregation, the double projection of which – constructed following the golden ratio – adds space for the altar and entrance. The height of the new nave is 7 metres so as not to overshadow the silo as the central element in the landscape.

‘Lacking a place of worship, a 200-year-old adobe silo was used by the local community for more than three decades’

Such geometrical rules are subtle: an invisible framework difficult to graspby the naked eye but enough to give the perception of a harmonic complex.

In a country principally devoted to Catholicism (two-thirds of the population according to the last census), processions are a very important feature of religious practice. Totihue has gradually positioned itself as one of the most important religious spots in the region of Requínoa, and to accommodate the arrival of these processions the nave will play the role of an antechamber to the silo, which is the processional destination.

Totihue Chapel02

Totihue Chapel02

Source: Cristobal Palma

‘The chapel reflects a community whose own efforts have brought about a successful place of worship in an agricultural and impoverished context’

Totihue Chapel Section

Totihue Chapel Section

Section - click to expand

The resulting building is one solicited and erected by its users, mainly women of different generations, and the inhabitants are emotionally attached to it. The group of women in charge of fundraising for the construction of the chapel now manage its maintenance: watering the garden, cleaning, opening and closing daily (the priest visits them only twice a month). The matriarchal structure is typical of Chilean rural territories and the women are the principal users of the building. However, in a town without public transport, people who previously had to travel to nearby towns for baptisms, weddings, or funerals now have a local venue. Since opening, the chapel has hosted several community events each month.

Not only a statement of the importance of religion, the chapel reflects a community whose own efforts have brought about a successful place of worship in an agricultural and impoverished context. In a country that has had to rebuild itself time and again, these chapels emerge not only as a religious or even an architectural strategy, but one that embraces the territory: a network amid the fields.

Totihue Chapel

Architect: Gonzalo Mardones Arquitectos

Structural engineer: Ruiz Saavedra Ingenieria

Photographs: Cristóbal Palma

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