by Almas SadiqueOct 31, 2023
Located in Brno-sever in the Czech Republic, the idea of the conception of the church and its construction had been intermittently oscillating for Atelier Štěpán’s founder and principal architect, Marek Jan Štěpán, for nearly 30 years. However, its location - centred in the heart of the housing estate at the mouth of the Čertova rokle ravine – was earmarked as a “sacred district” nearly five decades ago by the architects of the housing estate. Completely built using church donations and offerings, it is the first church to be dedicated to Bl. Marie Restituta, who was born roughly 600 meters from its location.
The church complex is swarmed by high rising concrete apartment buildings and complexes, and doesn’t intend to compete with the structures surrounding it for legibility in its urban morphology. As a result, the architects have chosen to design the holy building to be simpler in expression, using only elementary geometry and shapes. Set out on a rectangular piece of land that defines the sacred district, the complex houses three basic “masses” of the built in it: the church, the tower and the spiritual centre that has been designed by Zdeněk Bureš. The three buildings represent the three basic geometric shapes: the circle, the triangle and the rectangle respectively, but are constructed on a vertical and horizontal scale that helps it differentiate itself from the residential blocks surrounding it.
It is particularly interesting how religious contexts and concepts throughout Christian history have been reinterpreted and manifested as physical architecture in the design and planning of the church. The circular floor plan and the resultant cylindrical geometry topped by an asymmetrical dome particularly bears a spiritual significance that the architects have tried to reflect in its structure and form. According to the designers, the circle has been symbolic of heaven and eternity for ages, being described as a shape that represents “fullness”, and a spiritual focal point for the town of Lesná, marking a space in the city where people can find themselves, rest, reflect and break from their daily hustle.
The cylindrical concrete form of the church rising from the ground is topped off by its distinct annular ring of tinted windows. The tint itself is derivative of the seven spectral colours, transforming gradually through its 80m circumference, casting rainbow coloured shadows on the church’s interior spaces. This not only imparts the space inside with an otherworldly, pious quality, but also makes it appear like the ring “floats” like a halo over Lesná, a figurative, transcendental interpretation of a “heaven” itself, according to the architects. To the left side of the vast church space is a sweeping apse that houses the choir and the tabernacle, lifted from the ground and illuminated from above. Diametrically opposite to it, the church wall has a triangular “tear” at this point, which itself is a symbolic call back to the tear in the Jerusalem temple curtain.
Nearly all the light falling in the church from the annular windows on top is diffused, unable to cast hard shadows, creating a distinctly pleasing aura, complemented by the seamlessness of the curves of the structure. A circular rainbow in fact is a rare natural phenomenon that can be observed only at high altitudes. Through this interpretation of it, light is intended to be manifested as “an element that hints on something beyond the limits of material reality, something barely perceivable with our senses”. Interestingly, how principal architect Marek Štěpán transliterates this connection between man and god through the church, architectonically, is by not letting the source of the light be revealed to the devotee inside the church, since the annular window is hidden behind a wide ledge. All one sees, is the spectral light bouncing off of the vast asymmetric dome, making it acquire a “supernatural” character through its diffusivity. The dome itself is cast into a matrix of wooden planks, which on close examination appears like a giant fingerprint: “god’s touch”, if you will.
The church follows up on the primary material used in the housing complex, concrete, and uses pre-stressed RCC for its most tricky joints and parts that would experience the most strain. While the outside of the church is adorned in a radiant white colour, the interiors remain austere with an exposed concrete finished, one that is only brought out by the multi-coloured, altered natural light. The architects concurred that concrete, as a material itself, constituted truthfulness by way of bearing signs of its casting, even reflecting the imprints of the shuttering that help it take form. Its austerity coincided with the architects’ contemporary perception of the sacral space, which they imagined should not be visually or semantically overloaded, and the unadorned yet minimal nature of concrete did just that. On the parishioner’s request, the church has also been designed with an environment friendly outlook, and apart from material efficiency, the building is heated by a ground sourced heat pump.
The other distinct structure standing in the church compound is the triangularly planned tower. Rising to 31m high, the tower acts as a visual anchor to the place, even though it doesn’t rise above any of the surrounding residential blocks of flats. With small intermittent balconies midway, the tower opens its face on the side facing the church with an extruded cuboid of sorts. One face of the cuboid extruding out is highlighted in yellow, and houses the church’s glockenspiel, while the adjacent face highlighted in red serves as a lookout to the Brno city centre. A steel spiral staircase rises through its insides, reminiscent of the church and its lighting scheme. On the vertex of the triangular extrusion of the tower, near the top, the sign FOS ZOE, implying light and life, is inscribed in the form of a cross, distinctly illuminated in amber at night.