Büro Ziyu Zhuang’s Chamber Church is an ethereal abstraction of sacred archetypes

In Qingdao, China, this house of worship reinterprets the essence of a church, employing a layered aluminium façade to create a timelessly modern impression of the divine.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Feb 17, 2022

Towering above a public square in Qingdao, China, the Chamber Church by German-Chinese architecture practice Büro Ziyu Zhuang creates a picture befitting its associations with the divine and otherworldly, through an ethereal, ridged white form that remoulds archetypal elements in a more emotive vein. The project was commissioned by Tianjin-based developer Sunac as part of its Aduo Town project, in the Qingdao Zangma Mountain Tourism Resort. Despite its designation as a church, the structure’s exterior betrays little of its denominational allegiances, portraying itself in a more secular light. Stripped of any ornamention commonly found in church architecture, the design employs historic architectural precedents in a more abstract light, adopting a style that aims to represent a ‘timeless modernity which creates a sense of the future'.

Embedded in a mountainous terrain, the church was commissioned by Chinese property developer Sunac | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
Embedded in a mountainous terrain, the church was commissioned by Chinese property developer Sunac Image: Shengliang Su

In the past, creating architecture that was representative of the ‘divine’ predominantly relied on pastiche and symbolic ornamentation with a touch of grandeur, until the past century when the advent of modernism changed the game entirely. This is particularly true in the case of churches, whose cruciform plans, vaults, and towering spires have been reincarnated many times over, with varying degrees of detail and decoration to better fit the cultural zeitgeist of each era. In a typology as old and somewhat rigid as religious architecture, with its plethora of essential symbols, what is the next form of recontextualisation that can ground a structure, such as a church, within the Information Age?

01 min watch Video walkthrough of the Chamber Church | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
Video walkthrough of the Chamber Church Video: © Sunac Aduo Town

While searching for an answer to this compelling conundrum, the design team at Büro Ziyu Zhuang first turned their eyes to the past, to create a pure form, worthy of a modern icon, that would still resonate with traditional visions of what constitutes a church. Some common elements included an east-west orientation, spires, lateral symmetry, axial prolongation, and a basilica-style layout. Adopting these as points of reference, the firm overlaid vernacular architectural elements of churches to form a composite, and subsequently created a sequence of slices that generated a towering morphology. The captured form harkens back to colonial-style churches, with a soaring tower that culminates in a pointed spire at the front.

Büro Ziyu Zhuang overlaid vernacular elements of churches to generate the abstract exterior form of the structure | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
Büro Ziyu Zhuang overlaid vernacular elements of churches to generate the abstract exterior form of the structure Image: Shengliang Su

These slices were then translated into a system of aluminium fins reminiscent of buttresses. In essence, the entire structure is defined by this series of cascading slices, whose contours shape its referential bell tower, rose window, and gabled roof, lending a seeming movement to the façade design. This measure also pays heed to the age-old connection between the structure and the articulation of spatial functions within churches - as seen in elements such as domes, flying buttresses, and vaults, to name a few.

The building overlooks a public square | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
The building overlooks a public square Image: Shengliang Su

“The derived prototype," Büro Ziyu Zhuang shares in a press release, "still features the classic components associated with a church, such as the bell tower with a spire and rose window, the cascading interior arches, and the basilica layout, but most of the decorative elements are abstracted - not out of an aversion or rebellion against ornament, but in order to reveal both the interaction of archetype and experiment, and the core issue associated with it: divinity and ritual.”

A series of aluminium slices define the church’s ethereal form, shaping its bell tower, rose window and gable roof | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
A series of aluminium slices define the church’s ethereal form, shaping its bell tower, rose window and gable roof Image: Shengliang Su

Embodying the composite silhouette of multiple churches, the building's soaring form become a landmark in the vicinity. Embedded into the side of a mountain, with a landscaped patio connecting it to the sinuous terrain around, the structure has been placed at a point where the topography slides upwards, generating a difference in elevation between the church and its preceding square.

The layered structure utilises portal steel frames with GRG (Glass Reinforced Gypsum) and aluminium fins on the interior and exterior respectively | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
The layered structure utilises portal steel frames with GRG (Glass Reinforced Gypsum) and aluminium fins on the interior and exterior respectively Image: Courtesy of Büro Ziyu Zhuang

To resolve this, the architects made use of a stepped plinth - another hallmark of traditional church architecture - to make up for the change in elevation between the structure and the square preceding it, and to create a strong visual base that reinforces its sanctity. On either side of the central stairway, the steps have been transformed into a water feature. This move also naturally segregates it from the manmade lake that surrounds the building towards the back. As the space in front of the structure serves as a place for people to interact and connect, the lake beyond it ensures privacy. Alongside the main entrance, which lies beyond the ridged archway at the base of the tower, the church also has an auxiliary point of access from the plaza itself, leading to the lower section of the auditorium, as well as VIP facilities in the basement.

A stepped plinth with a water feature resolves the difference in elevation between the church and its preceding square | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
A stepped plinth with a water feature resolves the difference in elevation between the church and its preceding square Image: Shengliang Su

To shape the visual composite, the designers made use of a series of portal steel frames aligned with the white aluminium slices. Of these, 11 are main frames, while 60 of them are sub frames binding the former elements together. Main frames define the exterior contours of the façade, and the sub frames delineate the curves of the inner chamber. “In contrast to the traditional concept of floor function, the 60 separate and gradual slices can be regarded as 60 independent sections. We have been exploring the relationship between the characteristics of sections, corresponding functions, and operational possibilities in practice for years,” note the architects.

A womb-like cavity is encountered in the main hall, following the entrance | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
A womb-like cavity is encountered in the main hall, following the entrance Image: Shengliang Su

Two levels of structural bars have also been utilised, namely, the main beams which tie all frames together, and the secondary beams which have been deliberately misaligned to create a sort of backbone for the façade. Placed over this is a double glazed skin of toughened glass that shields the internal spaces, while filtering light inside through the aluminium fins on the exterior. As stated by the team at Büro Ziyu Zhuang, “The entire building is sliced at uniform intervals along the longitudinal axis. Gaps created by this assembly allow light to enter. As it passes between the white slices, it reflects back and forth between them and then spreads evenly and softly into the interior. Throughout the day, the changing angle of the sun and its relation to the gaps and interfaces create varying visual effects.”

  • GRG slices shape the cascading arches that flow into a window behind the altar | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
    GRG slices shape the cascading arches that flow into a window behind the altar Image: Shengliang Su
  • A soft white aesthetic in the interiors denotes a sense of sanctity and purity, with light flooding in through the structural slices | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
    A soft white aesthetic in the interiors denotes a sense of sanctity and purity, with light flooding in through the structural slices Image: Dummy

Additionally, for the interiors, the architects also derived precedents for a ‘sacred’ quality from more primordial sources, such as caves - humanity’s first form of shelter - to invoke a feeling of security. They also ascribed this cavern-esque quality to other spaces, like that of a mother’s womb - and in the natural world, such as blue holes in the ocean, or black holes in the cosmos. As per the architects, “all these series of existences have taken root in the depths of human consciousness, allowing us to further transcend form and speak to heaven and earth.” These inferences were the basis for the vaulted cavern of the main hall, which can also serve as a wedding chapel.

  • The arched window behind the altar overlooks the lake at the site’s rear | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
    The arched window behind the altar overlooks the lake at the site’s rear Image: Shengliang Su
  • VIP facilities, a reception, and the lower section of the auditorium are located on the basement floor | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
    VIP facilities, a reception, and the lower section of the auditorium are located on the basement floor Image: Shengliang Su
  • The interior design echoes the appearance of the exterior, radiating lightness and delicacy | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
    The interior design echoes the appearance of the exterior, radiating lightness and delicacy Image: Shengliang Su

Bursting with rhythm imparted by the smooth contours of GRG frames that have been aligned with their steel and aluminium counterparts - each 5mm thick and spaced 40 cm apart - in the structural framework to generate a layered series of ridges, the cavity intends to create a sense of shelter and security, much like the inner chamber of a cave. “The play between direct and reflected light gives the 'cave' a sense of divinity and elation,” the architects mention. The interior design echoes the feel of the façade, in a soft white monochrome, broken only by the light wood of the altar and rows of pews - touching upon religious connotations of white as a symbol of purity, and its divine associations. As a stark departure from the sharp geometries of the external form, the fluid spatiality of this hall cascades towards the main altar and podium, looking onto the lake through an arched window.

  • Basement Floor Plan | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
    Basement Floor Plan Image: Courtesy of Büro Ziyu Zhuang
  • Ground Floor Plan | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
    Ground Floor Plan Image: Courtesy of Büro Ziyu Zhuang

The architects conclude, “We believe that architecture is a carrier of space and of content. The prototype of space is relative to the content, and has a constant relationship with the site in time, linked to the past, and is inseparable from the present. Our design attempts to go beyond the symbolic functional definition of space, to shape a place of relaxation with an abstraction of elements, that can infuse the space with a richer purpose through user behaviours.”

  • Section | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
    Section Image: Courtesy of Büro Ziyu Zhuang
  • Façade Detail | The Chamber Church | Büro Ziyu Zhuang | STIRworld
    Façade Detail Image: Courtesy of Büro Ziyu Zhuang

Project Details

Name: Büro Ziyu Zhuang
Location: Qingdao, China
Client: Sunac China Holdings Limited
Floor Area: 770.91 sqm
Year of Completion:2021
Architectural and Interior Design: BUZZ/Büro Ziyu Zhuang
Principal Designer: Ziyu Zhuang, Fanshi Yu, Fabian Wieser, Na Li
Design Team: Mengzhao Xing, Jialin Song, Yingliu (Intern), Yi Liu, Dongdong  Chen, Weihong Dong, Yubing Chen, Zhendong Chen, Di Tian, Ruoyi Song, Nan Zhou (Intern), Lingwei Meng (Intern)
Construction Drawings: Qingdao Tengyuan Design Institute Co., Ltd.
Construction: Qingdao Jiuan Construction Groups
Interior Construction Drawings: Gold Mantis Construction Decoration
Interior Construction: Ganghua International
Landscape Design: ASPECT Studios
Landscape Construction: Guangzhou Yayue Landscape Construction Co., Ltd
Structure Consultant: Hejie Architectural Consultant
Lighting Consultant: Puri Lighting Desgin (Fang Hu, Yanhui Li)
Curtain Wall Consultant: Forcitis
Steel Structure and Curtain Wall Construction: Shenyang Lidong Curtain Wall Decoration Co., Ltd.

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