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San Giacomo Church by Massimiliano e Doriana Fuksas Studio, Foligno, Umbria, Italy

Fuksas works his artistic flair to create a modest yet awe-inspiring church, with a visual simplicity that belies its structural complexity. Photography by Stefano Topuntoli

‘This church will stand as a strong and innovative landmark… a symbol for the rebirth of the city and the territory after the earthquake’ (2001).

This citation from the competition jury for the new San Giacomo Church in Foligno, in the Italian region of Umbria, has even greater significance today. In 1997, the region was devastated by an earthquake. Ten people were killed and many of Umbria’s monuments and works of art were destroyed. Little did the jury know that, eight years later, just 18 days before the church’s ceremonial inauguration, the region would be struck by another disaster of even greater magnitude.

The latest earthquake, which took place in early April, has killed many more people. With the death toll continuing to rise beyond 275 as the AR goes to press, the events will inevitably stir up mixed emotions among the congregation of this church. Many of them lost their homes in the 1997 earthquake and occupied this site in temporary accommodation. ‘It was like a little town, for old people who lived without houses,’ recalled an elderly local gentleman who joined our tour of the new building.

Forced to settle here, somewhat out on a limb, the homeless hundreds pulled together and formed a new congregation. This continued to thrive, outgrowing space available in the original and now restored San Giacomo church; a delightful structure in the old town that dates from 1402. Since then, the area has become the part of the town’s westerly expansion, and in building a church this featureless site may, in normal circumstances, have invited architect Massimiliano Fuksas’ trademark flamboyance.

Fittingly, however, the completed building sees Fuksas in a more reflective, sombre mood, which has resulted in one of his most laconic buildings to date. When asked about the recent earthquake, he remains equally succinct, saying, ‘it is a disaster of incredible dimension’.

Designed while Fuksas’ 2005 New Milan Trade Fair building was on site, were it not for his acknowledged unpredictability, it would be hard to explain how a single architect could produce two buildings of such contrasting character. The Trade Fair is a slick and highly resolved essay in high-tech expressionism, with a fluid glass veil linking vast convention halls and the sort of vital statistics that read like the ultimate architectural Top Trumps winner: surface area, 46,000m²; structural nodes, 32,000m²; glazed rhomboid frames, 38,929m².

In stark contrast, San Giacomo Church comprises two simple boxes, with a surface area of 1,293m² and no visible nodes. And while the architectural and technical challenge may seem insignificant by comparison, building this relatively modest church in such specific social circumstances has been a profound experience for Fuksas.

‘I was tired of seeing so much glass,’ he recalls. ‘In Milan, there was so much steel and aluminium. So I said: “I want to build a wall.”’

After the 1997 earthquake, such was the need among the community, it was clear that a new church was required in Foligno. The bishop ran an international competition, won by Fuksas. His design has hardly changed since, partly due to the sophistication of the bishop’s brief and partly due to the clarity of Fuksas’ concept. Comprising two principal elements, the cubic church measures 30 x 22.5m in plan and rises 25.8m high.

Adjacent to this, the rectangular parish complex measures 52.4 x 12 x 8.3m high and contains sacristy, spaces for the pastoral ministry and the priest’s house. Both elements are raised 1,500mm above grade, physically elevating the floor level above the landscape and hinting at the building’s elevated civic status.

Approaching the entrance, rising up the gently inclined concrete apron, the exterior gives little away. Some may notice the trapezoidal windows set flush within the flanking walls, described by Fuksas as cannons that fire light deep into the interior, but on axis all that welcomes the visitor is an expressionless, low-lying slot; a technical tour de force in itself. The facade screens the building’s tectonic reality. As Fuksas puts it:

‘You have to come inside. Outside, you don’t fully understand. You may have some impression, but I am not a high-tech architect and I didn’t want to explain the structural performance of the building - which is very high-performing indeed.’

Without the sort of structural tracery more commonly associated with traditional ecclesiastical architecture, the building’s complex structural matrix is concealed within the depth of the blind 800mm walls. On the west front, this comprises a regular gridof ‘openings’ filled with lightweight permanent formwork (600mm of rigid insulation) and encapsulated in a fair-faced concrete skin. To the north and south, a more intricate web was spun to accommodate Fuksas’ visionary light cannons. ‘I didn’t want people to watch the technical performance of the building,’ he said. ‘Just standing in the space should be enough to create awe.’

Once inside, the clarity of Fuksas’ original concept remains true to his competition-winning perspective drawings, with an inner box suspended within the outer - a concept that derives from the traditional basilica format of nave and aisles. This has been reconfigured in the round, and is described by Fuksas as, ‘a total rethinking of the church and its relationship with the faithful’. Rising up the ramp, entering a perimeter ambulatory, and reaching the heart of the house, is a progression that, in Fuksas’ mind, enacts the mystery of faith, passing through and under a number of screens from one type of reality to another.

Despite the simplicity of the diagram, the ambience of the two spaces is surprisingly distinct. Lit by rooflights, the perimeter ‘aisle’ is a bright, dramatically proportioned space. Strong directional light gives each aisle its own mood and, at a more detailed level, as the angle of light striking the walls changes, subtleties in the surface texture are revealed, amplifying the difference between the hand-finished inner skin and the cast concrete boundary.

Unlike the outer box that bears on the ground, the inner box is suspended from above, apparently supported by the irregular light cannons. In reality, however, the whole element is supported by a steel framework finished in lightweight sprayed concrete.

The box hovers slightly higher than the building’s entrance slot, casting a subtle shadow on the floor that defines the church’s centralised place of worship.

Within this nave, Fuksas designed all the lighting and furniture, with elegant oak pews and prayer rails that can be arranged in any configuration around an informal chancel, defined by a single-step plinth and the more robustly designed altar, lectern and bishop’s chair, carved from solid pietra caciotta, a local soft stone which, once cut, hardens to form a tougher, marble-like finish. Three simple slots above this space provide a trinity of light rays that scan around the nave during the day, while the distorted light cannons add their own drama.

The missing and essential component on our tour was the congregation for whom this structure was built. Meeting the elderly gentleman who recalled the community’s temporary residential compound communicated something of the local people’s pride in this new building. Standing as it does with such defiance, set against the backdrop of the Apennine mountains that trace the trajectory of the geological fault line, there is a palpable sense that this building, more than anticipated, will indeed become a powerful and much-loved symbol of the rebirth and resilience of this community.

Architect Massimiliano e Doriana Fuksas Studio
Structural engineer Ing. Gilberto Sarti
Services engineer AI Engineering
Main contractor Ediltecnica Spa

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