The outskirts of Rome will destroy anybody’s romantic dreams of Italy. Frances Mayes would run shrieking back to California if forced to live in between the cell phone outlets, cheap pizza restaurants, and dubious massage parlors shoved between concrete-balconied 1970s apartment blocks. It’s not necessarily an easy context in which to integrate a new building. On the other hand, it could be said that - in such a context - it’s hard to make things worse.
Richard Meier did it.
The full title is Parrocchia Dio Padre Misericordioso, but they call it the Jubilee Church.
Unfortunately there’s not much to celebrate here.
You drive up the street, cars lining each side, with narrow sidewalks between the road and the surrounding apartment blocks. Out front, there’s a weird trapezoidal plaza with a lone low slab of bench. The church itself rises above a four-foot high white stone perimeter wall, stained with dust streaks and mold. The entry is a gap in the stone wall. Pass through, and you enter a glaring marble. No trees. No furnishings. Just the unfolding shell-like white stone planes, with a few slivers of window in between.
The interior of the building is beautifully crafted. Light shifts through the interior as the clouds drift overhead. Warm wood, exquisite joinery, whisper-delicate sails of stone. Outside, it’s a completely lost opportunity. The building stands adrift.
There are several different approaches to integrating a building - particularly a public building - into its context. One approach is to anchor a building into its context by using a common architectural language: building masses, shapes, proportions and materials. Historically, the urban fabric has often grown up around central public buildings - the buildings set the precedent. Now, they appear as though they were designed to fit into their surroundings.
An alternate approach is to design a public building that contrasts with its setting, stands out dramatically against it. Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit stands in rough contrast to the verdant London skyline, the funky twisted tower of red metal stark against washes of green foliage.
In designing anything - a garden, a building, a subdivision - understanding and relating to context is always the most challenging aspect. But it’s also the aspect of design that I love most.
The extents of a landscape intervention are often bounded by survey lines. But, regardless of property boundaries, experience of any given place is part of the constant stream of human experience.. As long as you’re on a planet, you’re enveloped and immersed in landscape. So, if you’re designing something in intergalactic space, you can get away without understanding the context. Otherwise, you have no excuse.