There are six countries participating for the first time in the Venice Architecture Biennale, here through November, but the most surprising new entry, surely, is the Vatican. For centuries one of the world’s great patrons when it comes to public architecture, the Holy See had never, until now, strutted its stuff as part of this global architecture exhibition.
However, it should not be surprising, given church tradition, that the Vatican’s pavilion consists of a pilgrimage of sorts: An installation of 10 chapels by a dozen architects in a densely wooded garden, nestled in a storied island in the Venetian lagoon.
That pilgrimage was a little treacherous on a recent May morning, as earthmovers leveled dirt paths made mucky by days of rain, and the loud buzz of chain saws and hammers occasionally drowned out the soothing soundtrack of chirping birds and water lapping against the shore of the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Still, the garden felt somehow out of time, a considerable achievement considering that just one boat stop away, hordes of tourists were swarming St. Mark’s Square.
Gingerly navigating puddles and potholes, Francesco Dal Co, the curator of the pavilion, gave a tour of the site: Ten chapels designed by an international roster of architects that Mr. Dal Co said he chose because they “had different structural conceptions and worked in different materials.” They include two Pritzker Prize winners, Norman Foster and Eduardo Souto de Moura.
Normally, national pavilions at the Biennale tend to showcase renderings, models, and sketches documenting the creation of buildings. “Vatican Chapels,” as the pavilion is called, presents the finished buildings themselves.
The architects were told to look at a building conceived nearly a century ago, the “Woodland Chapel” designed by the Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund, as a model. In a presentation of the project, Mr. Dal Co said he chose the chapel as a sort of spiritual example for the architects, describing it as a “small masterpiece” that is “seemingly formed by chance or natural forces inside a vast forest, seen as the physical suggestion of the labyrinthine progress of life, the wandering of humankind as a prelude to the encounter.”
And in fact, the first structure visitors happen on in the garden is a Nordic-style hut designed by Francesco Magnani and Traudy Pelzel, featuring drawings and a scale model of Asplund’s chapel. “I wanted to give the public an indication of our starting point, of the reference we gave to architects,” Mr. Dal Co said.
Mr. Foster created a slender timber structure, the apse facing toward the lagoon, and workers were planting jasmine on a recent visit, intended to crawl up the wooden beams to provide dappled shade. He nestled the chapel in “a green space with two mature trees beautifully framing the view of the lagoon. It was like a small oasis in the big garden, perfect for contemplation,” he wrote in the catalog.
The Paraguayan architect Javier Corvalán Espínola’s chapel is awe-inspiring, in the physical sense, for sure: Visitors stand under an enormous ring of steel tilted on a tripod.
One of the few chapels with a roof is Terunobu Fujimori’s “Cross Chapel.” Visitors enter through a narrow passage into a spare, traditional looking chapel whose apse wall is pockmarked with charcoal pieces framing a wooden cross. Mr. Fujimori wrote in the catalog that he wanted people to “experience the sensation of the ascension of the Son of God when they see the cross.”
In some cases, Mr. Dal Co chose to contrast building materials: Francesco Cellini’s chapel, a carefully studied intersection of slim, sleek oversized black and white ceramic slabs for example, was juxtaposed with “Morning Chapel” by the Barcelona architects Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats, made with the much earthier looking Venetian cocciopesto, a material made of crushed tiles.
To convince Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi — who is the Vatican’s de facto culture minister — that the Vatican should break new ground by showing finished works rather than models and plans, Mr. Dal Co used what he conceded may have been a “slightly vulgar example.” He told the cardinal that architecture shows normally “represent the carnal union between a father and a mother but not the creation that comes of it.”
The time had come to breathe life into those static renderings, argued Mr. Dal Co, an architectural historian and professor, who three decades ago curated Venice’s 5th Biennale International Architecture Exhibition. This year is the 16th edition, with 63 countries participating.
The Vatican agreed and in March a small army of general contractors, construction managers, carpenters and engineers descended on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, to transform a shrubby garden normally off-limits to the public into an architectural pilgrimage route “for believers and nonbeliever alike,” Cardinal Ravasi said.
Asked whether Pope Francis planned to visit, Mr. Dal Co responded with a smiling “no comment.”
Cardinal Ravasi said that he had only made two requests of the architects, that the chapels contain two central liturgical elements: the ambo, known also as a pulpit or lectern, and the altar. “The word, and the bread and wine, which are the basis of Christianity,” the Cardinal said in March.
Otherwise, Mr. Dal Co had carte blanche. Religious affiliation was never a factor. “I am not Catholic, I am not a believer, they knew that,” Mr. Dal Co said. That extended to his choice of architects, which Cardinal Ravasi approved. Mr. Dal Co said he never asked any of them about their religion.
Mr. Dal Co and Cardinal Ravasi spoke often, but the cleric did not interfere. “Never, never, never,” said Mr. Dal Co, adding, as an afterthought: “The only thing he did ask me one day, laughing, ‘But are there any crosses?’”
The Cardinal needn’t have worried, crosses — some subtle, some pronounced — are elements of most of the chapels.
A looming mirrored steel cross defines the chapel of the Brazilian architect Carla Juaçaba. Depending on where you stand, and the time of day, the cross blends into the greenery or glows bright red from the setting sun.
Ms. Juaçaba’s design is one of the most complex from a structural point of view, and Mr. Dal Co paired her with a Veneto company that specializes in window and door fixtures. He pointed to a joint where the base of the cross fused into a horizontal bar. “This probably says nothing to you, but the weld joint that unites this piece to that is a masterpiece, it’s incredible,” said Mr. Dal Co.
There is already considerable discussion on what will happen to the chapels once the exhibition closes in November.
For nearly 70 years, the island of San Giorgio Maggiore has been home to the Giorgio Cini Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to scholarly and intellectual pursuits. And the garden hosting the Vatican pavilion, which the foundation manages, is normally out-of-bounds to the public.
“We still don’t know what the destiny of these 10 chapels,” Cardinal Ravasi said in March. They could remain in situ, if the foundation permits it. “We’ve also had requests to dismantle them and rebuild them elsewhere,” both by some of the builders as well as a trade fair in Poland, he said. (Mr. Dal Co noted that it would be cheaper to build them from scratch than to transport them across Europe).
In early May it was still an open question. Renata Codello, the director of the Giorgio Cini Foundation, said she would be pleased if the chapels remained here. “A great park of sculptures and religious architecture, would give us many themes to reflect on,” she said in an interview in her office. “Or maybe they’ll leave to have another life, perhaps only as large artifacts, objects, relics, who knows,” she said.
Mr. Dal Co has no doubts. The chapels should remain on the island and open as a continued symbol of the hospitality that the chapels represent by inviting the public inside.
The Biennale typically draws around 700,000 tourists, but unlike the millions of day trippers or cruise ship passengers who tromp through the city’s streets, Biennale visitors tend to remain in Venice and spend money, he said. “If we allow the pavilion to stay, the Vatican will have done something for the city’s hospitality.”
And the garden and its peacefulness deserve to be better known, he said.
Mr. Dal Co sat down on a small wood bench in the porch of the simple chapel designed by Andrew Berman, the New York architect who is the only North American among the group. He crossed his legs and looked out onto the water, where a group of children were engaged in a sailing regatta.
A faraway bell tolled the hour. Birds sang.
“If you’re a citizen of New York or Milan, where else would you find another place that offers this silence, this peace, this beauty just from looking, sitting on a bench in piece of architecture, made by a man from New York,” Mr. Dal Co said.
The sense of solitude here, “is strong,” he said. “It’s marvelous.”
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