A place for prayer and ritual, Nicolás Campodonico’s chapel in Argentina combines Lewerentz’s sacrosanct respect of bricks with Dieste’s daring geometries
On 20 August 2011, Saint Bernard’s Day, a 1:20 model was placed on grassy terrain to define the exact orientation of a small chapel to be built for a local family and their neighbours to gather and pray. It was one of many physical models, accompanied by innumerable hand drawings.
The design and construction of this terracotta sanctuary were developed with analogue techniques, its volume and structure both inspired by a combination of the Argentinian horno de carbón (charcoal oven, also called horno media naranja, half-orange oven) and Mexican vaults, traditionally made out of bricks and adobe. ‘It would have been much easier to build this structure 100 years ago, when builders would have had the practical knowledge and experience to deliver it’, explains architect Nicolás Campodonico, ‘instead ours was very much a process of trial and error.’
Since structural masonry has largely been replaced by reinforced-concrete frames, ‘calculations for brick structures are now very limited’, explains the architect, leading him and his team to research techniques which are now considered obsolete, and attempt to ‘reconstruct empirical knowledge’. Built brick by brick and laid out with artisanal accuracy, the soft curves of the central space contrast with the flat surfaces and acute edges of the exterior elements. The cut-out openings of the envelope contribute to the project’s structural complexity, and because the success of the chapel’s interior resides in the absolute smoothness of the geometry’s curves, the vault was built without formwork, and adjustments were made on site on a daily basis to avoid misalignments and slight offsets – with the end-of-day low angle lighting, small imperfections could have caused large shadows to be cast. With no elements protruding to disturb the purity of the brick lines, the only shadows moving through the circular interior are those of the two timber poles, which come together and intersect to form a cross in the evening light. While the interminable horizontality of the Humid Pampas’s flat grassland imposes its stillness, the chapel’s central space is ‘conceived as an instrument’ and ‘symbolism is replaced with rituals’. On a site without any electricity or utilities, ‘nature imposes its own conditions’.
Corte longitudinal edit
Campodonico, who likes to say his ideas come from intuitive responses and observations of the everyday rather than from strict design analysis, speaks of place as a ‘determining factor’ and endeavours to bring together the natural, religious and architectural worlds into a single entity. A small rural house and its yard used to occupy the grove. By reusing leftover bricks for the exterior walls (the least structurally demanding elements of the project), the century-old remnants of the site’s previous constructions become part of its ongoing story. ‘The newly arranged recycled bricks lost their patina at first, as if cleaned up by the use of lime mortar’, explains the architect, ‘but with the first rains, the organic matter accumulated within the bricks resurfaced, and just a few weeks later, the terracotta had regained its greenish-grey patina and century-old look, making it look like the chapel had always stood there.’
Based in Rosario, a city of 1.5 million inhabitants in the province of Santa Fe in the centre of Argentina, Campodonico acknowledges that living and working in a ‘developing’ country comes with technical limitations and sometimes scarce resources, but these are easily counterbalanced by the opportunity to start building from a relatively young age, and by having a certain freedom to experiment with techniques and materials. A tectonic authenticity and purity emanate from Capilla San Bernardo, elegantly combining Sigurd Lewerentz’s sacrosanct respect of bricks with Eladio Dieste’s daring geometries.
This piece is featured in the AR’s April 2018 issue on Reinventing the rural – click here to purchase a copy