Alcalá Church by Alejandro Beautell merges sacred memories of the old and new
by Jincy IypeFeb 11, 2022
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by Jincy IypePublished on : Apr 04, 2022
Architect Fernando Menis achieves distinction and balance between spirituality and architecture, with the Holy Redeemer Church and Community Centre of Las Chumberas, in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain. Its fractured concrete volumes reference the craggy geology of its volcanic island site, to become a conduit for the community’s upliftment. More than 15 years in the making, the Holy Redeemer Church came about the same time when the congested, confusing neighbourhood of Las Chumberas was transforming and bettering itself - all of its 670 homes from the 1970s, organised into 42 blocks, to which shopping centres and industrial buildings were later added. Supported at all times by the Bishop of Tenerife, initiator of the project, as well as patrons and residents, Menis conceived the church’s architecture as a “necessary catalyst” for the urban and social changes that were taking place in the neighbourhood.
“In his vision, the new building would create a place where there was none, and contribute to giving Las Chumberas an identity of its own, establishing itself as a reference space in a confusing, urban fabric,” shares Menis' eponymous Spanish firm, Menis Arquitectos. The resulting compound is captivating, and includes a church, a community centre and a public square enriched with greenery, and is successful in becoming a congregational place that the neighbourhood had so long required.
STIR speaks with the Spanish architect, who considers the Holy Redeemer Church and Community Centre of Las Chumberas as one of his most emblematic projects till date, discussing how the fragmented volumes and phases of construction panned out, and how religious architecture has a role to play in uplifting and bringing a community together.
Jincy Iype: Are you a religious person? How have your views and education in spirituality seeped into the design of the church, if at all?
Fernando Menis: I would not say I am wholly religious, I am not. But I also do not deny spirituality. I see faith and religion as cultural vehicles, potentially in practice for humanity’s furtherance, to make sense of our purpose with our limited time on earth. I also believe that churches, regardless of denomination and faith, are relevant as long as they are connected to the local communities' life and needs. They can be effectual, real-time civic centres where people congregate, connect, share, collaborate with the community, and be structural spaces for connecting with oneself and God.
Jincy: What forms the core concept and inspiration for the Holy Redeemer Church and Community Centre, and its boulder-like, fractured concrete form?
Fernando: We live on a volcanic island, which means we live on a rock in the middle of the ocean. Our homes and lives depend on these rocks. All is here, and we cannot ignore it and if you dare to forget it, El Teide, the majestic peak, is there to remind you of its omnipresence - one can see it from everywhere. The design and materiality of our buildings are impregnated with it: the heavy volumes, the lacerations, the unruly cracks, the rough textures, the stony colours...
This building, therefore, is no exception. It draws from the rugged landscape of the Canary Islands, with its rocks, its great cliffs on the northern coast of Tenerife, the Cañadas del Teide, and the rough and diverse textures that follow us and inspire us. The fractured volumes resemble large rocks but are at the same time, the result of the constructive logic imposed on us by the lack of budget to undertake the entire construction at once. We had to conceive a building that could be built and used in stages: with the first instalment of funds, we were able to build two volumes, which made possible to put the community centre into use before the whole project was completed for the community. This part of the compound also assumed the typical activity of a church until we received more money to build the remaining two modules of the church.
Jincy: The exposed concrete and coarse textural quality must also be your choice, of wanting to build sui generis, unadorned, brutalist architecture with minimal relief?
Fernando: I would say so, but it is mainly about the geographical inspiration. Low-tech innovations with concrete and stone were carried out, for the embedded edifice that rises out of the ground with its four massive volumes, evocative of large restless rocks, minimised and smoothened in its design. The rough texture of the exposed concrete architecture lands a sharp contrast with the conventional residential context from where it emerges, as you labelled it, "sui generis". Its petrous volumes live separated by narrow cracks filled with sculptural structures made of metal and glass, through which daylight punctures the building, to configure an austere and stark compound, which relinquishes all superfluous elements.
The form manifests as a geological phenomena occurring on the outskirts of the volcanic site, as if nature were fighting against banality. – Fernando Menis
The use of concrete as the main building material addresses several aspects simultaneously, of the exterior skin, the interior’s spatiality, the monolith structure and form, as well as its characteristic, craggy texture. Firstly, it is a common material, accessible locally, which allowed us to work only with local companies and materials, in accordance with the Km 0 architecture principles to which our firm adheres. Secondly, the energy efficiency provided by concrete, due to its isotropic nature, is enhanced here by virtue of the thermal inertia offered by the thick solid walls.
Finally, as in our other projects such as the CKK Jordanki Culture, Music and Congress Hall (Poland, 2015), or the Magma Art and Congress Center (Tenerife, 2007), we experimented here with the acoustic potential of concrete. These works demystify the common belief that concrete is acoustically inferior to other materials, such as treated timber. In terms of acoustics, concrete has been used here in two ways: conventional exposed concrete for diffusion, while the surface of the exposed concrete, previously mixed with light porous volcanic stone (picón) was chipped, for absorption. The acoustics thus achieved resembles a similar quality as a conventional opera, suitable for speech and song, and ideally designed for a building that combines ecclesiastical and social functions.
Jincy: What is the architecture's larger intent, besides being a church, and how does it contribute to the community?
Fernando: The construction of The Holy Redeemer Church took more than 15 years, overlapping with the transformation of Las Chumberas, the neighbourhood where the building is set, on the outskirts halfway between Santa Cruz de Tenerife and La Laguna, the main cities of the island of Tenerife. This neighborhood was an urban disgrace, with a confusing fabric and no public spaces. In this context, the church acted as a necessary catalyst for the urban and social changes that were taking place in the neighbourhood.
The building is also the proud result and expression of collective action since the financing of the works has been carried out through donations from various organisations, many neighbours and some businessmen committed to the neighbourhood, where they were born and brought up. The uneven rhythm of remittances is in fact what determined the design and its construction process, and the final output. We had to deliver a building, but there was money only for half of it, so we designed a compound made up of four independent modules plus their surroundings, which was delivered in phases. The community centre, housed in two of the four volumes, was completed in 2008 and has been in use ever since while waiting to raise the necessary funds for the rest of the works. So once again, the building as an endeavour, brought the community together for a common cause.
Jincy: Can you take us behind the 15 years it took to build this church?
Fernando: I would rather not! It was a long and difficult process with much insecurity. However, the presentations, the meetings with the residents and the donors, and the intense debates were very rewarding. I got married in this church when it was still under construction, so I am genuinely and emotionally connected to it. We donated our architectural fees and we have actively collaborated to raise money from private sponsors. Part of my life is mixed with this building.
Jincy: Can you elaborate on the client’s brief?
Fernando: The owner is the Catholic Church, the Bishopric of Tenerife, but the funds come from different sources, donations mostly, and the users are the residents of Las Chumberas, many of whom also made donations. Who would you think the client is in this case?
We made a space for the community, for Las Chumberas while responding to a brief that asked for a Christian church focused on The Holy Redeemer theme, as well as a community centre to house activities such as meetings, celebrations, donations, events, and more. The church's name is actually La Iglesia del Santísimo Redentor (The Church of the Holy Redeemer), and the Bible reads: "Once again, Jesus spoke to the people and said, "I am the light of the world".” This is an essential statement in Christianity and daylight is, therefore, an essential element of the edifice.
Jincy: So how is "the light of the world" manifested in the architecture of the church?
Fernando: Daylight filters through the incisions made on the building’s skin to shape a free-flowing yet introverted void, which plays an essential role in the mass and interior design, by stressing on each of the Christian sacraments. At sunrise, the light comes beaming in through the cross on the east wall as a cascade of light, illuminating and filling the space behind the altar to symbolise the entrance to the cave in which Jesus Christ was buried. It also sets light to the baptismal font, the first light received by a Christian. The altar, the confirmation and the communion receive light at noon through the skylight. Later on in the day, a fainter shaft of light falls on the confessional, giving light to the sinner who repents. The strategic layout of the skylights achieves the same effect on unction, matrimony and priesthood.
Jincy: How does the hefty, window-less structure ensure proper lighting and ventilation, keeping in mind its monastic nature?
Fernando: We aspired to create an archetypal space that mixes with a mystical, calming experience. We designed clear contrasts between darkness and light that invite one on a visual journey, dipping between compression and liberation that invite deeper relaxation, with the sound of hymns and prayers. Rough textures that invite touch, merge with soft acoustics that invites contained whispering. The result is a place, which, from the outside, looks like a secure, cave-y shelter, but, once inside, receives austerity and kindness, underscored by mystery.
Natural light is only given entrance through the narrow slits carved between the heavy volumes, and through the cut cross. The inclusion of windows would distract from that mystical sense that we were able to imbue into the structure.
Light suddenly becomes a material, almost tangible, a presence. One can almost feel it. – Fernando Menis
Cross ventilation and mechanical air exchange was carefully planned out, along with the slits and skylight, and the placement of doorways. We were even more aware of how crucial it would be to properly ventilate the interiors, keeping in mind the coronavirus pandemic that shook the world. Global warming also poses a challenge, to cool our spaces, while reducing the environmental impact of our lifestyles. In this sense, passive solutions work well in the Canaries because we are privileged when it comes to weather. Across all our projects carried out here, we really just had to figure out proper orientations, by having large openings at the north and smaller openings on the south, as well as reducing energy consumption by channelling as much daylight as possible.
Jincy: What can you tell us about the employed monochrome palette and the furniture?
Fernando: The colours, like the form and materiality, reference the natural geography of Tenerife, and therefore replicate hues of volcanic stones and some accents of warm earth. We focused on surface treatments to achieve certain acoustics, but also on a diversity of textures that are accentuated by the use of overhead lights.
The furniture was initially designed to be made entirely of concrete, to follow the skin it sits inside, but the owner decided to use standard wooden benches for pews, reserving the design of the altar, lectern and some liturgical objects to us, which were kept as plain concrete blocks.
Jincy: Please walk us through the church and community centre.
Fernando: The Holy Redeemer Church and Community Centre acts as a connector between the upper and lower part of the neighbourhood, by means of a terraced ramp where plant beds are arranged for green relief, that will gradually help soften the compound. We took special care of accessibility, so there are no steps that lead into the structure, to inject a more fluid mobility for the neighbourhood.
One can access the church and centre directly, either from the street level below and enter through the main door, or access this entrance by going down the ramp from the upper part of the neighbourhood. Another entrance, from the plaza nearby, directly leads to the second floor of the community centre. These differentiated accesses guarantee that users can access either the church, the community centre, or the whole building in its entirety, as they require. The church’s ground floor contains the chapel, the confessional, the baptismal font, the columbarium and small service spaces, whereas the ground floor of the community centre hosts multifunctional spaces, with the library and parish office upstairs.
Jincy: What are some notable accolades received by The Holy Redeemer Church and Community Centre of Las Chumberas?
Fernando: The love from the community stands steadfast at the helm of its achievements. We were happy when the project was included in the architecture collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, apart from receiving the Honor Award of the Religious Art and Architecture Faith & Form and AIA Interfaith Design Awards (2021), the Highly Commended, Civic & Community, MIPIM, and Architectural Review Future Projects Awards (2020).
Name: The Holy Redeemer Church and Community Centre of Las Chumberas
Location: Street Volcán Estrómboli, 3, Las Chumberas 38108, La Laguna, Tenerife island, Canary Islands, Spain
Site area: 1,590 sqm
Building area: 1,050 sqm (built building area: 538 sqm + built open space area: 512 sqm)
Total floor area: 83,391 sqm
Design years: 2004 – 2005
Construction years: 2005 - 2008 (Community Centre), 2021 (Church is completed), 2022 (Environment is scheduled for completion)
Client: Parroquia Sanasimo Redentor de Las Chumberas - Diocese of Tenerife, City Hall of La Laguna
Architect: Fernando Menis, Menis Arquitectos
Architectural Design Team (along the 16 years construction process): Babak Asadi, Juan Bercedo, María Berga, Roberto Delgado, Javier Espílez, Andrés Ferrer, Niels Heinrich, Yanira León, Joanna Makowska Czerska, Paula Manzano, Natalia Pyzio, Raúl Rivera, Gerardo Rodríguez, Esther Senís, Andreas Weihnacht, Julia Zasada
Structural Consultants: Juan José Gallardo
Acoustics Consultant: - Pedro Cerdá/ i2A Acoustic & Audiovisual Engineering
HVAC: J. Oliver Oliva Alonso/ Dual Ingenieros, José Ángel Marrero/Nueva Terrain, Fernando Javier Hernández/ Prisma Ingenieros
Quantities survey: Rafael Hernández, Andrés Pedreño, Ruperto Santiago Hernández
Concrete: CEMEX Spain; Formwork systems: PERI Spain; Lighting: ZUMTOBEL - José María Maran Piñeiro/ MP Lightcan
Construction companies: Construcciones Carolina, Construcciones Ático (Mercedes Suárez, Francisco José Tejera), Solventia Ingeniería Y Construcción
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