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Church by Beton, Tarnów, Poland

Beton’s simple, sober and dignified church sits comfortably within its tranquil surroundings

In deeply Catholic Poland, the building of new churches is a serious matter. This modest place of worship, however, is a more offbeat proposition, constructed not through the auspices of any local diocese, but rather by a private individual, an anonymous Polish writer who wanted to preserve a bucolic idyll from the blaring intrusion of the modern world. The site lies on the outskirts of Tarnów, a small hamlet on the edge of the Vistula, Poland’s mighty main river. Yet its banks are regularly colonised by trippers and their trappings, with ad hoc structures (such as bars) springing up like bindweed and blighting the scenery.

In some ways, this is another ad hoc structure, being elementally simple and designed to be built by the local community using basic construction skills. But both formally and metaphysically, it is clearly rooted in a much more thoughtful spirit. The architect is Beton, the young, Warsaw-based partnership of Lech Rowiński and Marta Rowińska, who met while studying architecture at Warsaw University of Technology. Rowińska also studied fashion design, so Beton embodies an increasing typical youthful, cross-disciplinary fluidity that artfully encompasses clothes, buildings and graphics.

‘The church serves as a place of meditation and prayer for the local community,’ says Rowiński. ‘Having it in such a surprising setting draws people’s minds to new and unexpected thoughts. Our aim was to find a balance between something being simple, delicate and really strong’.

Set in sylvan landscape, the building has the powerful, sobering quality of an archaic vernacular structure gradually weathered by time and use. Its peaked form resembles a giant tea cosy or, more obviously, the elongated, upturned hull of a boat, beached high on the river bank. The long side walls are clad in feathery aspen shingles, set in a herringbone pattern, which gives the huge, blind flanks a mesmerising sense of animation and texture (shades of Peter Zumthor’s celebrated chapel at Sogn Benedetg, AR January 1991). The shingles were laid using traditional construction techniques that keep the external skin ventilated and protect it from insect attacks without using chemical coatings. The wall at the north end is also blind, tightly wrapped in spruce cladding, while the south wall behind the altar is by contrast fully glazed, framing a tableau of light, landscape and the river beyond.

The structure comprises twelve composite wall/roof trusses set at 1.2m intervals. Fabricated from honey-coloured local spruce, the trusses are laterally braced with diagonal members along the wall plane. The long space is divided into a lofty, eight-bay ‘nave’ with a smaller three-bay ante-room. Austere yet tranquil, the interior is like a comforting timber womb. Rows of plain spruce benches and a table for the altar are the only furnishings. Religious trappings are also played down, a modest crucifix on the altar being the only overtly Christian symbol. Instead, the hand of the divine in nature - landscape, sky, light and water - provides a focus for contemplation. ‘There is no detail, no fancy elements,’ says Rowiński. ‘It’s an experiment in how to create a certain quality of space using very simple means.’

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