A Croatian cloister for a monastery’s expansion, by Randić-Turato Architects. Photography by Sandro Lendler
Lying near Croatia’s northern border with Italy, Rijeka is home to the Church of Our Lady of Trsat, the oldest and most important Marian pilgrimage site in Croatia. Legend has it that in 1291, angels brought the Nazareth Tabernacle belonging to the Holy Family to a site at Trsat, in the hills above Rijeka, where it remained for three years before being transferred (again by angelic intervention) to its final resting place at Loreto in Italy. At the time, a church was built on the Trsat hillside to commemorate this miraculous event. Later, in the 15th century, a new church and Franciscan monastery were founded along with a school and hospital, in accordance with the order’s tenets of openness and active social ministry.
Since the eclipse of Communism in the Balkans, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, faith of all kinds is now expressed with renewed devotion.
The church at Trsat attracts a steady stream of pilgrims, swelling to thousands for the pivotal Marian festival, the Feast of the Assumption, on 15 August. The challenge for the monastery authorities was how to manage the practical and sacral needs of such an influx in the spirit of Franciscan tradition. This was given impetus by the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2003 (only the second pontiff to set foot on Croatian soil), who visited the church for private prayer and gave his blessing to the monastery’s expansion plans. The new complex, consisting of a hall, cloister and courtyard for open-air assemblies, now bears his name.
In its handling of mass and light, and exploration of relationships between the man-made and nature, humanity and divinity, this is a building of many subtle parts. Designed by the local partnership of Saša Randić and Idis Turato, it achieves a quiet transcendence, yet also acts as a reconciling bridge between the mysteries of the numinous and the more humdrum demands of the modern world.
The hall lies on the south-east edge of the monastery compound. At its base is an L-shaped cloister defining a new public courtyard. Articulating processional routes through the monastery grounds and spaces, the new hall and cloister emphasise the permeable quality of the overall ensemble. At its heart is the ‘charged void’ of the courtyard, which holds new and historic elements in equilibrium and is periodically transformed by crowds of visitors. In effect it becomes an open house, a notion as ancient as the liturgy itself, protectively gathering hoards of pilgrims into the bosom of the divine.
The hall is a plain hipped barn, an abstraction of the most basic form of shelter, yet this apparently simple volume is endowed with a powerful ornamental quality.
Walls and roof are uniformly sheathed in a taut skin of terracotta bricks, but in some places the bricks are pulled apart, like a loosely woven fabric, to allow light through an inner layer of translucent cladding to the hall and its ancillary spaces. This effect is most compelling at night, when a soft radiance leaches out through the pixelated brick veil.
The cloister is supported by slim, irregularly spaced concrete fins. Like the warped brick, which softens a large volume, the uneven spacing generates an informal, rippling rhythm as a retort (conscious or otherwise) to the institutional rigour of symmetry and monumentality. The concrete lamella forms a series of niches perfectly proportioned for two people and so are enthusiastically employed by the monks for al fresco confession on busy feast days.
The cloister itself also serves as an informal exhibition space, so the new elements are not simply receptacles for passive contemplation, but have an active role in cultivating the monastery’s engagement with the wider world. The hall, in fact, is used for both sacred and secular gatherings, which perhaps explains its neutral, almost Scandinavian ambience. The only concessions to Catholic symbolism are bands of papal yellow, outlining horizontal and vertical slots of glazing. This assured and inventive project is all the more remarkable when you consider that its architects gave their services for free, as a gift to the monastery. A reward in heaven must surely await.
Architect Randic-Turato Architects, Rijeka, Croatia
Project team Saša Randic, Idis Turato, Sinisa Glusica, Gordan Resan, Iva Cuzela-Bilac, Ana Stanicic
Constructor Aljosa Travas