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Australian church architecture to rise highest in Venice exhibition

Thursday 17 March 2018

Media and Communications Office 

One of Australia’s leading architects arrives in Venice next week for the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Bienniale, running from May 26th to November 25th. For the first time in the Architecture Bienniale’s history, the Vatican will be making a splash in the canaled Italian city by inviting ten architects from across the globe to participate in a straightforward, yet challenging brief.

Photograph courtesy of Alessandra Chemollo


They were invited to design chapels.  

According to Vatican guidelines, each project had to adhere to several parameters. Along with being capable of dismantling, the chapels could be no larger than 10m deep and 7m high. However, each architect was free to construct in any material and were not required to adhere to any religious references or symbolism other than an altar and pulpit. 

‘I’m very excited to see it in Venice. It’s both intimidating and exciting at the same time,’ Melbourne-based architect, Sean Godsell tells Melbourne Catholic.

In a description of the chapel he designed for the project, Godsell writes, ‘architecture doesn’t solely exist in bricks and mortar but also in human spirit.’ Like his architectural style, this insight from one of Australia’s most prominent architects is disarmingly simple.


Godsell’s style is widely celebrated for its innovative use of space and materials. And with an emphasis on crafting a spiritual atmosphere through contemporary architecture, Godsell’s chapel design intends to foster a unique sense of unity and energy in a congregation. ‘There have been different responses from ten different architects with varying backgrounds,’ says Godsell. ‘Ours is the only vertical one, so it will stand out from the crowd.’


The project’s genesis occurred during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis adopted the idea, turning to renowned architect, academic and event organiser, Francesco Dal Co, to curate an exhibition of designs.


Francesco Dal Co pointed to Gunner Aspland’s 1920 Chapel in the Wood as inspiration for the exhibition. The chapel still stands in a Stockholm cemetery. 

Central to Godsell’s concept is to connect worship to the environment. In doing so, he explains, the reflective and meditative experience creates a tranquil setting free from distraction.


‘Aspland’s woodland chapel prompted in my mind the desire to investigate notions of spirituality that are linked to nature,’ says Godsell. ‘The idea of our chapel in Venice on a beautiful island and in a beautiful context was to make people sit in nature and make the chapel about the altar.


‘Really, it’s an outdoor chapel. By being in touch with nature and in touch with the cosmos, you are linked to God. It’s a setting that provides a calming moment to sit and contemplate and I think that’s really important in the 21st century.’

Despite the temporary nature of the exhibition, there is a clear intention to prolong the lives of the ten chapels and reconstruct them elsewhere with earthquake-stricken Italian towns among the suggestions.


‘The chapel has different criteria from a permeant structure so that informed our solution to making it moveable,’ explains Godsell. ‘We’ve designed a prefabricated steel structure that is relatively easy to be constructed, undone and packaged up and moved to another site.’ 


 Renders depicting the transportability of the chapel. Provided by Sean Godsell

While the chapel’s architecture is minimalist and completely free from adornment, upon glancing skyward, visitors will experience a familiar image presented in an unfamiliar way. ‘When you look up towards heaven from the altar, when the sun enters the light shaft, it's reflected in the form of a cross,’ Godsell reveals. 

‘The cross is the most potent of Christianity’s symbols,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t difficult to incorporate that symbolism without necessarily reverting to the conventional cross behind the altar.’


Photographs courtesy of Alessandra Chemollo

His original design also featured the presence of church bells and although the Vatican’s brief disallowed their inclusion, Godsell hopes to see bells added to the chapel once it finds a home among a community in need. ‘The bells would be something that would draw people to the building. It’s important to recognise the impact of the beautiful sound of music and the link it is to liturgy,’ says Godsell.


The exhibition will remain open until November, allowing for thousands of visitors to witness what the future of church architecture may look like. ‘All the designs are different and vastly individual. I’m confident that’s what Pope Francis was looking for,’ says Godsell.

‘Clearly, the Vatican at the highest possible level has identified the need for the church to continue to be relevant in terms of architecture going forward through the 21st century We need to continue to make places that are relevant and respectful but also sensible and cognisant of the fact that people are changing and their needs are changing. Those two things have to come together.’

Despite responding to the changing demands of society, no matter the design, Godsell recognises that some things will always remain constant. ‘Religious buildings still need to be places that encourage meditation, congregation,’ he says.  
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