Richard Meier’s Rome church is one eventoriginally planned to mark the celebrationsof the Jubilee of AD 2000. This was initiatedby the Pope in 1994 when he called for aSpecial Consistory to prepare for the GreatJubilee at the starting point of the thirdmillennium involving the Catholic world as awhole. Meier’s project is the 50th church tobe inaugurated in the Vatican’s MillenniumProject. Each church has a community centreand they are built in various parish districtsthroughout Rome.The Jubilee Church commission was theresult of an international competition, andthe Vatican’s shortlist included Meier, Gehry,Behnisch, Calatrava, Eisenman and Ando.The award of the project to Meier wascontroversial from the outset, in that Meieras a Jew would be working with the foremostCatholic client – the Vatican itself. However,the relationship and the resultant complexare a triumph of this collaboration, andentirely successful in architecture ofoutstanding optimism.The church, named Dio PadreMisericordioso (God our Merciful Father) byPope John Paul II, was consecrated andinaugurated on 26 October 2003 by CardinalCamillo Ruini in a four-hour service ofcelebration, music and ritual. This wasattended by a huge congregation both withinthe church itself and externally on thechurch piazza.The church is in an ordinary 1970s10-storey housing quarter at Tor Tre Teste,a suburb at some distance from the centre ofthe city. Taken together, church andcommunity centre form a spectacular newfocus in an otherwise low-key suburbanenvironment, and define both a religiousprecinct and a heartening sense of place.Meier has said that ‘… expression ofaspiration, hope and belief, as well asopenness and transparency are all aspects ofthe ideas behind the design of this church’. Itis a wonderful gift to the whole communityof more than 25 000 people.The fan-shaped site is approached directlyfrom the east across a travertine pavedentrance piazza (
), which extends as abase to the church on the south and west ofthe precinct. The entrance is marked byseveral external features including a silvercross, and a campanile with exposed bells – the tower marking out both the church tothe south and the community centre to thenorth. The generous entrance hall, definedby a travertine screen wall, is partly enclosedwithin by a raised organ loft. Once in thenave, the main altar is immediately visible atthe west end. Although unconventional, thisposition is a logical result of the frontaleastern entrance.Plan-form and section are extremely clear.Three circles of equal radius create threeconcrete shells to the south and togetherwith a thick spine wall to the north, the mainspace of the church nave is contained. In acontrasting, plain L plan around a sunkencourtyard, is the community centre, on fourlevels. The centre is separated from the mainchurch by a linear top-lit atrium.The plan of the church is essentiallytraditional with nave, altar, side chapel andconfessional booths. Introduction of thethree shells transforms the project andimplies the Holy Trinity. Natural light is themajor theme, with skylights between eachshell and over the main space, creating everchanging patterns within. Meier has referredto this as ‘… a luminous spatial experience… the rays of sunlight serve as a mysticmetaphor of the presence of God’.Curving in both plan and in section, thethree shell wall planes are the real tour deforce in the whole project. They aresweeping vertical cantilevers formed withpanels of beautiful white concrete with afinish so fine that it resembles marble.Meier’s description of the engineeringeffort involved in erecting the shells as
INSTRUMENT OF LIGHT
Richard Meier’s long awaited church in Rome isa beautifully honed giver and receiver of light.
1In a nondescript suburb of Rome, thechurch isa glowing beacon composedof overlapping, shell-like forms.2Main east entrance. The concreteshellsare anchored by a spine wall.12