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The hypogeal allure of Monastery Accommodation Stella Maris in Italy

Articulated in the stillness of stone, the monastic and poignant Monastery Accommodation Stella Maris by Semerano Architecture Workshop reveals itself in choreographed pieces.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Jan 28, 2023

Religious architecture for me, has invariably been personal, instead of catering to a particular higher being; of curated spaces decorated with divine light and an aura of spirituality that offers to bear the burden of your worries for a little while, cleansing and calming your soul. As we progressed into the modern world, so have our spiritual spaces, from minimal, non-denominational buildings to museum-like, grand edifices. I am reminded of Le Corbusier’s last completed building in Europe, The Convent of La Tourette, set on slopping green hills, and unique in its architecture of a pious dwelling catering to silent monks. In the late architect’s own words—"(The intention was) to give the monks what men today need most: silence and peace...this monastery does not show off; it is on the inside that it lives."  

Aerial view of the Monastery Accommodation Stella Maris in Italy | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
Aerial view of the Monastery Accommodation Stella Maris in Italy Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

Semerano Architecture Workshop, led by Italian architect Toti Semerano, conceived the Monastery Accommodation Stella Maris, a 'hypogeal intervention' that creates a meditative womb within a chapel and cloister housed inside a residential complex, located in the Bibione Comune in Italy. The subterranean architecture as well as the complex it resides within caters to guests with disabilities and their families, serenely ensconced in a bucolic natural environment, that of a verdant and deep pine forest overlooking the splendid Adriatic Sea.

  • Inside the largely beige, monastic interiors of the chapel | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
    Inside the largely beige, monastic interiors of the chapel Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop
  • The Monastery Accommodation Stella Maris is revealed as a discreet, hypogeal form | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
    The Monastery Accommodation Stella Maris is revealed as a discreet, hypogeal form Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

Semerano paints a visual picture of the chapel’s architecture—walking towards the discreet form, upon a soft carpet of pine needles, footsteps muffle while the mind starts to get still and take in the space. The natural landscape begins to rise imperceptibly, abandoning the darkness of the pine forest, broken only at times by large clearings, to transition into a smooth terrace that kisses the canopy of pines, and in the process, rapidly revealing the sea in all its vastness and glory, with the sun dancing in innumerable sparkles.

The chapel's ceiling detail | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
The chapel's ceiling detail Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

A substantial dune articulates the space clearing in the garden rolling below, further defining the Italian architecture’s built space. “From here we proceed by excavation and subtraction: a deep furrow into which the vegetation has entered until it visually joins the wooded space, a green river which at the same time increases the privacy of the residences that overlook it. As you go up you feel the presence of a void, a sudden suspension, which you cannot access, but which is strongly present,” he adds.

The subterranean architecture as well as the complex it resides within in Italy caters to guests with disabilities and their families  | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
The subterranean architecture as well as the complex it resides within in Italy caters to guests with disabilities and their families Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

The unique cloister, the covered walkway inside the monastery, comes alive here, as a sacred space around which everything revolves, as a discreet yet eloquent spiritual architecture that worships the ground. Access to this space is only possible from the chapel and kept barely discernible from the outside. The space is described by Semerano as “a crypt in which natural light enters from a single cut, from the east, the morning light,” giving it its characteristic monastic allure. Blocks of stone articulate this space, whose surface was machined with particular milling to make joints disappear, resulting in the volume seeming as though it was built as an excavated monolith, an immense mass of stone occurring naturally.

From a distance, the discreet form of Stella Maris remains concealed | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
From a distance, the discreet form of Stella Maris remains concealed Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

“Through the movable walls of the chapel, with deliberately limited size, but not in height, the chapel itself can be expanded by incorporating the halls of a meeting space: a meditative space that, on certain occasions becomes a liturgical space of considerable capacity. The stone becomes the protagonist, the high walls that seem to be dug in a single block, making the surface vibratile under the light. A painted sky shines behind the interweaving of the branches to emphasise the upward movement of the housing wall,” the architect explains.

 Stone articulates the meditative architecture, surrounded and inspired by nature  | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
Stone articulates the meditative architecture, surrounded and inspired by nature Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

The calming, palpable presence of the natural environment suggested the ‘botanical’ design approach adopted for the stone architecture. The construction of the Monastery Accommodation Stella Maris aimed to preserve the pinewood from extreme human settlement, in tandem with formulating the built as an “editable image in time, in the sense of its programmed mitigation,” says Semerano.

  • View of the central space from the circulatory corridor | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
    View of the central space from the circulatory corridor Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop
  • Strategically placed cutouts in stone lend dynamism to the main space | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
    Strategically placed cutouts in stone lend dynamism to the main spaceImage: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

The experience of crafting a modern chapel design that remains in continuous dialogue with natural light represented “an increasingly urgent answer to the question of how it is possible to safeguard the architectural quality at all stages of the realisation,” he continues.

Subtle details of rectangular cutouts, petite windows and brick reliefs act as simple facade decorations | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
Subtle details of rectangular cutouts, petite windows and brick reliefs act as simple facade decorations Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

Inside the warm beige chapel, a minimal, peaceful familiarity, reminiscent of comforting sleep, awaits—the welcoming entrance wall with a slightly protruding holy water font embodies subtle decoration in the form of petite yet prominent rectangular cutouts, placed in choreographed tranquillity, as the wall curves around the perimeter. A trapezoidal hunk, plain but given embellishment through etched striations on its skin serves as the altar, while a four-shaped cross is sliced out in the background, a twinkling night star in stone. To the left, a cuboidal pulpit stands in stillness, while the skylight above blesses the altar in abundant light, with strips seemingly peeling upwards from the walls to bunch towards the ceiling in worship.

A trapezoidal hunk, plain but given embellishment through etched striations on its skin, serves as the chapel's altar | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
A trapezoidal hunk, plain but given embellishment through etched striations on its skin, serves as the chapel's altar Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

Ceilings and continuous surfaces inside the other zones of the Monastery Accommodation Stella Maris curve gently, injecting subtle contrasts and adding dimension to the otherwise monastic interior design.

The entrance wall of the chapel with the slightly protruding holy water font and prominent rectangular apertures | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
The entrance wall of the chapel with the slightly protruding holy water font and prominent rectangular apertures | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

As the project began and took shape, the search for its materiality followed suit. Semerano highlights the idea and intent—“The wrinkled bark of pine trees with its non-colour-changing hues under light, now grey, red or brown, remained the constant reference in identifying the materials that had to be used.” Along with hand-made bricks, deactivated concrete (a building material that turns off the surface to highlight the aggregates contained in concrete by removing the surface layer of the same) was also employed for the idyllic contemporary architecture, made with a specific mixture of inert earth and oxides which were formulated in a laboratory.

  • Detail of the subtly textured wall | STIRworld
    Detail of the subtly textured wall Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop
  • Closeup of the facade | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
    Closeup of the facade Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

Santafiora stone was chosen for the flooring both inside and outside, not only for its colour but also for the adaptability and possibility that it presented, to realise a wide range of surface treatments. “The outcome is a variety of shades of a single colour that considerably dampens the impact of the built for its degree of harmonisation with the surroundings,” the design team shares.

Inside the light-filled, dining area of the Monastery Accommodation Stella Maris | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
Inside the light-filled, dining area of the Monastery Accommodation Stella Maris Image: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

The personality of such typologies, ranging from churches to monasteries, theological seminaries, and convents, is what ultimately defines the individual experience of its users. An intended sliver of light that chases the floor, entering from a slender aperture becomes the private meditation space of a nun, or an alcove birthed between tree trunks functions as a group study for young seminarians, or a wide-eyed child’s first visit to a massive stained-glass cathedral, casting a memory that will remain etched in their lives thereon.

  • Plan | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
    PlanImage: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop
  • Elevations and sections | Stella Maris by Toti Semerano | STIRworld
    Elevations and sectionsImage: Courtesy of Semerano Architecture Workshop

Project Details

Name: Monastery Accommodation Stella Maris
Location: Bibione (Venezia) Italy
Area: 47,425 sqm
Client: Giuseppe Toniolo srl
Architect: Toti Semerano / Semerano Architecture Workshop
Project Management: Diego Malosso - Concordia sas
Design team: Stefano Antonello , Ludovica Fava , Iride Filoni , Enrico Friselle , Tommaso Gasparini , Andrea Michelon , Alice Miotto , Salvatore Musarò , Luigi Parise , Andrea Piscopo , Stefano Sabato , Nicolò Reither , Ed Testa , Stefano Zanardi
Structure: Simone Carraro - Sogen srl
Works Management: Ing. Francesco Panzarin
Landscape designer: Alfrino Pasetto
Technological systems: Simax
Safety coordinator: Elena Zoccolan
Fire prevention system: Fabio Rocchesso - Sicurtecno srl
Acoustic project: Cristian Borton - Sinthesi Engineering srl          
Ceiling fresco: Antonio Lovison
Sacred furnishings sculpture: Antonio Schito, Edmondo Marzano

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