Saint Joseph in the Woods

Saint Joseph in the Woods

Messner Architects
Collalbo, Italy
Project Year
Davide Perbellini

Conversion and renovation of a small church in the alpine woods

Messner Architects as Architects

The church in Stella is an appreciated spiritual place for people from far and wide, not least because it is located along the popular Sigmund Freud path in the alpine woods at 1300 m.a.s.l. The conversion and renovation of the building dating back to the fifties is aimed at reevaluating the existing structure and making it more attractive. The main focus of the modification is in achieving a friendly and inviting atmosphere and a well-defined architectural structure.

The east facade of the building was broken through to provide the church interior with more daylight. The huge rectangular opening behind the presbytery bathes the interior in light and underlines the pursuit of linking inside to outside, in a way spiritual to profane. The fleeting glimpse inside is claiming people’s attention and stimulating to enter the church. The prevailing ‚genius loci‘, the spirit of the place, is strikingly expressed with the phrase ‚church in the wood‘ . The framed view is characterized by a continuously changing landscape in the course of the seasons. The contemplation of nature gives the opening its highly meditative meaning.

Inside the church the previously existing height difference between presbytery and nave is reduced and replaced by a ramp with an incised canyon. The configuration as a ramp dissolves the separation of the space and creates the impression of a shaped landscape. The dark incisions in the wooden ceiling reflect the joints in the flooring and takes up the idea of a landscape crossed by tracks and traces. A freestanding panel of translucent glass opposite to the front door works as a protective and informative shield. The stained-glass windows originate with the artist Peter Fellin. The figurative arched windows with the pictures of Saint Stephen and Saint Notburga were moved from the east facade to the west facade where they brighten the entrance. Since renovation the abstract and precious stained-glass windows receive more attention and appreciation.

The reconfiguration of the prebytery originates with the recently passed away artist Franz Messner and was completed by his children David and Verena. The altar is located on the central axis of the presbytery, while the ambo and the priest’s chair are situated sideways in front of the main liturgical object. Solid monoliths of a local variety of gneissic rock rest on the translucent glass bases. The light breaks through the fragile bases and makes the heavy masses hover above the ground. The weightlessness of the design strongly expresses the aspiration for the divine and the closeness to heaven. The design of the wooden benches takes up the lightness of the presbytery.

Originally a tight ladder conducted to the attic floor. The new staircase starts with a loop, hovers above the registry and leads to the attic floor along the east facade. In the course of the conversion the previously unused attic floor was restructured and recovered as a place for meditation, silence and retreat. The attic floor consists in an entrance area with a cloakroom, a restroom, a storage room and a spacious event room. The entire timber-framed supporting structure was demolished and substituted by a three-hinged arch. The subsequently unsupported tent-like space was improved in its physical properties by insulating the wood-shingled roof. The brickwork of the western gable was demolished to further provide the meditation space with daylight. A stair shielded by a wall element leads down to the meditation space wrapped in its lower part in carpet like a nest and dissolving in its upper part in wooden boarding. The entire surface of the gable wall is closed by a glass facade which opens up the view to the piazza. A stepped terrace enlarges the meditation space with an attractive free area connecting inside to outside visually and mentally too.

In the end only two architectural interventions determine the conversion of the church in the wood. On one hand it is the breakthrough of the sacred space to the landscape, on the other hand it is the opening of the gable to the piazza. Both interventions trigger off a dialogue between inside and outside, in other words between the man-made and the grown. Ease and coziness inspirit the tend-like meditation space. Brightness and peace ensoul the sacred space.

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