Austere spaces allow worshipers to concentrate on the rituals taking place within this Catholic parish church. Photography by Fernando Guerra
Portalegre, a town in southern Portugal near the border with Spain, has a new parish church. Designed by João Luís Carrilho da Graça, the church of St António also incorporates a parish centre for different sorts of social activities, so rooting the building more intimately with the surrounding community.
Catholicism is still a powerful force in this part of the world and Portalegre contains a number of historic churches and monasteries, some dating back to the 13th century. But this is a modern church for modern needs, embodying the doctrines of the Second Vatican Council, first postulated in the 1960s, which encouraged Catholics to move from a traditionally passive role to greater participation with ecclesiastical authority.
Carrilho da Graça’s design is a sensitive response to this now familiar notion of liturgical space transformed from an awe inspiring ‘house of God’ to a ‘house of the community’.
The simplicity and sobriety of Iberian vernacular has always found a powerful contemporary reinterpretation in Carrilho da Graça’s architecture and this is no exception. Though essentially a modestly scaled project, with a budget of 2.76 million euros (£2.5 million), it adds both to the life of the community and Portugal’s canon of decent, modern public buildings.
Seen from the outside, the church appears as a simple, two-storey volume, enclosed by utterly plain, white rendered walls, in the manner of traditional Iberian patio houses. At the north-east end, the compound is partly bunkered into a rocky hillside and rather than being excavated and cleared, the topography is simply allowed to intrude into three internal courtyards.
Visible through a long glazed slot, the largest of the courtyards addresses the main volume of the church, the honey-coloured quartz of the terrain forming a geological backdrop behind the altar.
It’s a slightly curious move, but perhaps the contemplation of a controlled landscape, akin to a Japanese Zen garden, tranquilises the senses and assists with devotions.
At the other end of the church an identical glazed slot opens up onto a large entrance courtyard at the heart of the compound. This is flanked by two narrow wings containing rooms for various social activities, such as a parish hall and nursery, together with accommodation for the resident priest. Skinny external ramps connect with the upper level, so there’s a sense of animation, of comings and goings.
Extending to the street in a gesture of welcome, the courtyard is also a place for encounter and socialising before and after services. An abstract version of a portico, created by cutting and tilting the white planar walls, marks the interface between sacred and public realms.
With room for just over 300 worshippers, the church is a neutral, luminous space. ‘The church’s assembly room is almost a square plan,’ says Carrilho da Graça. ‘The altar is also a square table. These static and centred forms allow us to feel, although being presided, that this celebration is performed by a group of willing people.’
God is also in the details; specially designed pews in pale wood have integral shelves for stashing personal possessions and lower pull-out sections to provide support for worshippers at prayer. The generous scale of the church contrasts with the more intimate confines of a smaller side chapel and baptistery.
The extreme, almost Scandinavian austerity of the spaces, tactful handling of light and the understated elegance of the fittings all combine to focus attention away from the architecture and instead on the rituals and relationships the building is designed to host and cultivate. As Carrilho da Graça puts it: ‘Architecture must stage the minimum in the most intense way.’
Architect JLCG Arquitectos, Lisbon, Portugal
Structural engineer António Adão da Fonseca
Services engineer Isabel Sarmento