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Rafael Moneo's Iesu Church in San Sebastian, Spain

This suburban church is a box of light that draws on Iberian archetypes

San Sebastian (Donostia, in Basque) still has a flavor of the Belle Époque, an era when its grand hotels and promenades drew the same affluent travelers as Biarritz on the French side of the border. It has retained its integrity, in part because mass tourism has headed south, leaving the city to become a hub of the arts and gastronomy, as well as a slightly old-fashioned resort. Rafael Moneo, who was born in the neighbouring province of Navarre, contributed a beachfront convention centre and concert hall (AR May 2000), and has returned to build the Iglesia de Iesu, an exemplary parish church for the new community of Riberas de Loiola.

Iesu Church, San Sebastian, Spain by Rafael Moneo

Iesu Church, San Sebastian, Spain by Rafael Moneo

 

The name is misleading, for this bland residential development hugs the banks of the Urumea River, and Loiola is a neighbouring suburb, not a stream. It feels vacant and anonymous, and another architect might have proposed an eye-catching marker, as Richard Meier did in his church for the Roman suburb of Tor Tre Teste.  Instead, Moneo designed an understated composition of white cubes for the parish center and church, with a basement supermarket to provide income and guarantee that this becomes a point of focus for the entire neighbourhood. 

A Basque firm, Lur Paisajistak, won a competition for the adjoining park, but Moneo wove them together with his curvilinear landscaping in the plaza to the north. 

Plan ground floor

Plan ground floor

In an essay titled ‘Architecture as a vehicle for religious experience,’ Moneo described the paradigm shift from the medieval concept of a church as the House of God, to the Renaissance emphasis on the individual and the private realm—a change that has accelerated in recent decades. ‘The architect, facing the challenge of building a church or temple, cannot rely on a shared vision, but instead must risk offering his or her own version of sacred space,’ he wrote.

In Donostia, he took some cues from the rector of the parish, Jesus Maria Zabaleta. ‘He and his fellow priests wanted a church that provided the faithful with a space that allowed them to express their religious feelings without interference,’ the architect recalled. ‘The purer the form and the less conventional iconography, the better. I very much wanted to serve their wishes.’

Iesu Church, San Sebastian, Spain by Rafael Moneo

Iesu Church, San Sebastian, Spain by Rafael Moneo

From the outside, the building is enigmatic. The lofty church is rotated ten degrees to the hollow rectangle of the parish centre, and projects into the park. Concrete blocks, faced inside and out with a white cement mortar that resists airborne pollutants, rise from a stone-clad base along the street wall. To the east, a cut-out cross in the roof parapet identifies the church and a scarlet sign marks the sunken entry to the supermarket; the symbolism of God rising above Mammon is rather too obvious. Oak grilles enclose the entry concourse that runs parallel to the street and an opening that lights it, projecting a grid of sun and shade. Beyond the landscaped patio are a meeting room, parish offices, and upper level apartments.

This low-key approach heightens the drama of the worship space: an irregular Greek cross, defined by the angled walls of the baptistery, sacristy, and chapels that occupy four corners of the square. Three blocks of pews and the deep sanctuary are bathed in natural light from the same roof lanterns that light the meditation chapel above the sacristy and the other three corner chapels. The light defines the central cross and articulates the spaces between open and enclosed volumes.

Radical shifts of height give each chapel a distinct character: one ascends 23 meters above the low-ceilinged sacristy; the others rise 7, 11 and 27 meters above the black basalt floor. An organ gallery offers another perspective on a volume that was inspired by the sharply-etched blocks of Eduardo Chillida, a widely admired sculptor who spent most of his life in Donostia (there are also references to the work of another modern Basque sculptor, Jorge Oteiza).

Iesu Church, San Sebastian, Spain by Rafael Moneo

Iesu Church, San Sebastian, Spain by Rafael Moneo

This is only the second sacred space that Moneo has designed, following the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles (AR March 2003). There, working on a large scale in a multicultural metropolis, he incorporated elements of the Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque. The beauty of the interior was fatally compromised when Cardinal Mahoney ignored Moneo’s recommendations of artists who would have matched the boldness of the architectural expression, and insisted on a clutter of pious kitsch and a dense thicket of overhead speakers and lamps.

For an architect who was rigorously educated by the Jesuits it was a deeply frustrating experience, and the Iesu church shows—on a modest scale—what he might have achieved in LA with a more enlightened client.

Long section

Long section

Here, Moneo has created ‘ineffable space’ as it was defined by Le Corbusier: ‘When a work reaches a maximum of intensity, when it has the best proportions and has been made with the best quality of execution, when it has reached perfection…it belongs to the domain of the ineffable.’ Ronchamp, La Tourette and Firminy share that quality, along with Rudolph Schwartz’s Corpus Cristi in Aachen, John Pawson’s monastery at Novy Dvur, Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light and a few others. Steven Holl explained his strategy in creating sublime spaces, sacred and secular: ‘For me, light is for space what sound is for music: the experience of architecture, overlapping perspectives, is the equivalent of spatial acoustics of light.’

Iesu Church, San Sebastian, Spain by Rafael Moneo

Iesu Church, San Sebastian, Spain by Rafael Moneo

The Iesu church is sparely furnished and adorned with a few contemporary works by Basque artists Javier Alkain, Prudencio Irazabal, and José Ramón Anda. The bare walls absorb and diffuse the light, while creating a lively acoustic, ideal for early music. The church has a timeless simplicity and a layered complexity that should captivate non-believers as much as it inspires the faithful.

Severed from street life, it opens to the sky, and the constant shifts of light provide an intangible link to nature. Moneo has distilled a lifetime of disciplined invention into this numinous void.

FACT FILE

Architect: Rafael Moneo
Structural engineer: Miguel Salaberria
Photographs: Duccio Malagamba

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