Herzog & de Meuron envisions a motorway chapel in Switzerland in form of a human ear

The Swiss firm designs ‘Autobahnkirche’ in Andeer as a small, serene white chapel set on the ground with three underground spaces that aim to alter perceptions of sight and sound.

by Zohra Khan Published on : Feb 21, 2020

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.

Angular white walls of the chapel are visible from the adjoining motorway  | 515 Autobahnkirche | Herzog & de Meuron | STIRworld
Angular white walls of the chapel are visible from the adjoining motorway Image Credit: © Herzog & de Meuron

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.

Fluid walls traverse the underground space | 515 Autobahnkirche | Herzog & de Meuron | STIRworld
Fluid walls traverse the underground space Image Credit: © Herzog & de Meuron
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.

01 min watch A glimpse of the proposal and its context 
 | 515 Autobahnkirche | Herzog & de Meuron | STIRworld
A glimpse of the proposal and its context © Herzog & de Meuron

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.

Floor to ceiling red tinted wall creates a boundary between the interiors and the outside | 515 Autobahnkirche | Herzog & de Meuron | STIRworld
Floor to ceiling red tinted wall creates a boundary between the interiors and the outside Image Credit: © Herzog & de Meuron
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.

  • Layout Plan | 515 Autobahnkirche | Herzog & de Meuron | STIRworld
    Layout Plan Image Credit: © Herzog & de Meuron
  • Section | 515 Autobahnkirche | Herzog & de Meuron | STIRworld
    Section Image Credit: © Herzog & de Meuron

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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About Author

Zohra Khan

Zohra Khan

A formal education in architecture combined with an avid interest in architecture journalism and design criticism led Khan to professionally venture into writing and research. She has worked in design communication for more than three years, generating content for mondo*arc india journal. When not writing, she kicks back by dabbling on social media for STIR.

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