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Along the A13 motorway that run past the picturesque Andeer landscape of Switzerland – a town replete with centuries-old churches that lie embedded in their rural precinct – a cave-like chapel has been envisioned by Herzog & de Meuron. The project called Autobahnkirche is imagined as the first motorway chapel to offer travellers a place to rest and pause.
Neither the spatial programme nor the location was clearly defined when the architects set out to create an outline for the project. It was over a course of several meetings with the representatives of the community and the pastor of Andeer that the architectural concept came to shape.
The design introduces a solid white chapel on the ground and three other underground chapels resembling the human ear. The ground chapel is attuned to its context by keeping the form rather simple. “We did not want to define it, but we did want to enclose or surround it, like a garden or courtyard which meant four walls of equal height and right angles, but not as fixed walls of a room. The walls just lean against each other. One of them stands upright. Almost like the wall of a choir. A simple gesture that emerged almost in play,” explain the designers of the Swiss architectural firm.
The idea of the chapel emerged from the site alone, from the location, from the road. – Herzog & de Meuron
A series of broad, snail-shaped stairs lead to the funnel-like form of the chapel’s earthen interiors. The architecture is defined as a path that follows a sequence of small enclosed spaces that trigger perceptions of sight and sounds.
Drawing inspiration from the human ear, the series of spaces sit deep into the earth to provide acoustic insulation from the noise of the motorway. The architecture is kept abstract for visitors to experience the nook and crannies of the chapel in their own, unique perceptions.
We wanted to create space but not a closed architectural volume. It was more like a path coming from outside, passing through a sequence of specific rooms, and then leading directly outdoors again. – Herzog & de Meuron
One of the rooms within the chapel is a circular reading chamber with an opening in its roof that filters daylight inside. The second room is a more personal space for the visitors where a candle, a mat, a reflecting wall and a small skylight offer a moment of introspection.
The key space, however, is the last room that frames a panoramic view of the lush green meadows and woods. Daylight streams into this space in abundance through the floor-to-ceiling red tinted glass wall, set a little before the edge of the room, separating it from the outside.
As one goes deeper into the chapel, the noise of the motorway is taken over by the sound of one’s footsteps that penetrate deep, offering a mysterious sense of calm and repose.
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