Herzog & de Meuron Basel Ltd.
4056 Basel, Switzerland
Every Orthodox Church built today, in the West as well as in the East, is as a rule equipped with icons produced by contemporary artists. These works, whether mosaics, paintings on wood, or frescos, are executed according to rules that have been obeyed for centuries. Because these Orthodox rules have always carried such weight traditionally, the artist, as opposed to the work, i.e. the icon, was always somewhat in the background. This means that the liturgical value of the icon was always more important than its artistic value or, perhaps, that the liturgical value of icons was always so fundamental that their artistic merit was not divisible from them. The liturgical, artistic, and aesthetic instance formed a whole – a whole that included every other element of the church’s space: its architecture, the surface of its materials, its music, the light of its candles and its smell. These correlations are impressively and perspicaciously described by the Russian priest and philosopher Pavel Florenskij who examined the issue of icons during the Stalinist period of secularization of Orthodox churches and cloisters.
What is wrong with icons being produced and churches being built today? It cannot be because of our lack of faith in God that we fail to be moved; otherwise other wonderful traditional church spaces would leave us cold as well. It is rather the now impossible and therefore disintegrated unity of the liturgical and artistic value of icons and architectural space. Icons painted according to rules handed down and with paints mixed following old recipes have now become mere handicrafts, even when they come from the hands of an artist cut off from telecommunication information and living in the most secluded cloister in the world.
The impossibility of keeping tradition alive is a universal and irreversible phenomenon. The impossibility of producing new Orthodox images according to traditional rules did not just suddenly become a fact from one day to the next. Rather, a long-term process is taking place (Actually, the process is always taking place although we only perceive it in its marked eruptive moments.), but one that nonetheless suddenly attains an impossible to ignore dimension that is ultimately sensed by everyone.
The failing artistic and architectural qualities in the building and furnishing of churches are certainly not the reason for, but the consequence of the visual expression of such a broadening dimension of impossibility. Our thoughts, which became determinative for our project for an Orthodox church, a project that attempts to articulate and reflect upon the icon in a specific way, emerge from this impossibility and this uneasiness.
Our point of departure is a church space composed exclusively of icons whose building material and whole essence is, as it were, the icon. For this we use photographic representations of old icons that have been lost or that now hang alienated from their original purpose in museums or other collections. These photographic materials will be copied onto thinly-ground pentelic marble slabs by means of silk screen and etching. The depressions created by the etched in photographic screen dots will be filled with paint and sanded. The dots of the icon’s image and lines are now “tattooed” onto the slabs and create a drawing overlaying the preexisting natural drawing of the veined marble. The whole church space, walls and ceiling, is built from these large, flat, translucent, icon-etched slabs.
The light intensity in the inner space is regulated by the outer sheath of the church façade which, like the photographic screen of a mosaic-like lattice, is composed of transparent and opaque slabs that shed more or less light on the marble slabs depending upon the frequency of their distribution.
The space inside the church is experienced more strongly as “inner space” through the double layering of the translucent sheath. A unity of space and image comparable to Early Christian or Romanesque fully-painted church interiors is achieved. Icons are both representations and originals; here they are recognizable as representations. Their representational quality is the prerequisite and the goal of the project. Their representational quality is so strong here, so in evasively present, that their original archetypal quality again suddenly becomes perceptible and, in a changed spatial mode, perhaps accessible too to those who are not Orthodox Christians.
Herzog & de Meuron, 1989
The sloped property and existing small private homes convinced the architects to excavate the slope and condense the liturgical areas of the church in a large volume, placing the simple cube down at the lower level by the river.
Various versions develop a ground plan from the traditional architecture of the orthodox church (I), which would be a mediator between church and city. The solution is two volumes, one set into the other.
The light entering the inside of the church through the interstitial space is filtered by marble panels and creates a warm, honey tinged shade. B The marble panels were to be etched following reproductions of old icons which today are lost or can only be found in museums, removed from their original purpose. The pictorial figurative images form abstract patterns when viewed up close.
The model shows the gathering of differently shaped volumes inside the church and the translucent enclosure of materials with varying transparency, protecting them like a shell. D The icon paintings in old orthodox churches inspired the icon theme. By translating the historic example into a different material and technique, it is quoted from a respectful distance.
- Griechisch-orthodoxe Gemeinde der Schweiz und Hochbauamt der Stadt Zürich
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