In the middle of the small village of Garmerwolde, less than 15 kilometres northeast of the city of Groningen, stands a church that dates back to the 13th century, together with a solid free-standing clocktower.
On entering the old tower, a visitor will be surprised to see two snow-white spiral staircases, designed by MX13 architects.
These stairs are a minimalistic statement in a space that is completely surrounded by ‘kloostermoppen’, medieval bricks, like a meeting of the 21st century and the Middle Ages.
The renovated tower is part of an educational project initiated by Museum Catharijneconvent entitled ‘Religious feast! Know what you are celebrating’.
In collaboration with its local partners Catharijneconvent wants to introduce young Dutch people through expositions and exhibitions to the backgrounds of religious traditions. In this way the initiators would like to stimulate the intercultural dialogue in the Netherlands, which is basically the opposite of the Dutch proverb ‘Unknown is unloved’.
At 10 different locations in the Netherlands primary school pupils can find information about religious feasts. In the northern part of the Netherlands the initiators collaborate with the Stichting Oude Groninger Kerken (Mediaeval churches in the province of Groningen).
This foundation is the manager of innumerable architectonic monuments both in the province and in the city of Groningen. It recognized the potential of the church in Garmerwolde with its ceiling paintings and the unused space inside the tower. The exhibition in the tower works like a vertical museum wing, in which four christian and four islamic feasts are portrayed. The foundation sees this project as a means to make a contribution of cultural and social interest and, at the same time, to stimulate tourism in the village.
Visitors are welcomed in a reception building, after which they can enter the church and the tower. The exposition is open to primary school pupils on school days and to individual visitors during the weekends. MX13 has designed the reception building, the new entrance to the church and the renovation of the tower.
The highlight of the exposition is the visit to the tower. Climbing one staircase and descending the other one is a kind of journey of discovery along the 8 religious feasts. The double staircase, which spans a height of about 15 metres, is characterised by a spiralling cyclic form.
When climbing the first staircase the visitor will pass presentations of Christmas, Easter, Laylat al-Qadre (Night of the Decision) and the Ascension of Christ. Descending the second staircase he will see visualizations of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr (the Festival of Breaking the Fast), Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) and Whitsun.
Studio 212 Fahrenheit has portrayed these religious feasts through the use of new symbols, rather than through the use of descriptions or existing pictures. This modern imagery is not only very instructive, but also visually exciting.
The underside of the staircases is also stepped, which creates an alienating spatial effect, as in a print by Escher. The way up and the way down are formed by separate stairs, circling around each other and passing the church clock halfway. When climbing or descending these stairs, the visitor has to divide his attention between the exposition and the monumental context. And suddenly, through the new, big window on the north side of the saddle roof there is an opening to the world outside. The view over the magnificent landscape of the Groningen countryside puts the theme of heaven and earth in a completely different perspective.
When looking down over the railing before descending the second staircase, one is confronted with a kaleidoscopic mix of old and new.
The tower, as a venue for the exposition, holds an irresistible attraction to both young and old and challenges everyone to visit the ‘top’, a real treat in itself. The religious feasts are presented in the order of the calendar and thus fit the cyclic character of the construction of the stairs.
The ticking of the clock is clearly audible to those that take the time to stop on their way up or down. In spite of the modern design and the contemporary effect of the installations the past can still be felt, heard and seen.
The modern design never affects the monumental value of the medieval tower, since the staircases and all other facilities of the exposition stand fully autonomously in the space of the tower. They can be removed again without leaving a trace. The whole renovation has been realised in steel and timber frame and covered with waterproof sheets that cover all necessary technical equipment.
Never before has a regional heritage organisation used one of its monumental possessions in a way like this to bridge the gap between the past and the modern age.