Oratorio de San Felipe Neri in Albacete

Religious Architecture and Modernity

San Felipe Neri´s exterior view
San Felipe Neri´s exterior view
9 MAR 2016
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In 1963 a young man hardly 28 years old raised a small temple in his home town which half a century later would be considered as one of the finest examples of Spanish 20th-century architecture, being exhibited at the Spanish Pavilion of the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale.

Under the banner of “Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014”, the curator, the Dutch Pritzker prize-winner Rem Koolhaas, reinstated the idea of modernity which had illuminated many works such as the Albacete chapel over the last century, with a spatial and material refinement so immense that they have become authentic icons of contemporary culture.

The “Oratorio de San Felipe Neri”, popularly known as Los Filipenses, was the first work by Antonio Escario Martínez (Albacete, 1935), who, as he had not even finished his studies, co-authored the building with the architect Adolfo Gil Alcañiz.

This commission obliged him to reflect on philosophy and sacred art, at a time when there were many regenerative movements within the Church, which were searching for doctrinal aggiornamento.

Catholic spiritual reform movements culminated in the celebration of the famous Pope Pius XII Allocution to the Assisi Liturgical Council in 1956 giving directives for the celebration of an ecumenical council. This convulsive period of change brought a crisis to the ancestral morphology of Christian temples, in which the role and meaning of their most emblematic components were questioned: presbytery, altar, pulpit, apse, choir, baptistery...

The exhaustion of the historicist method brought new models as from the 1950s, which arrived in Spain after serious delays due to the misanthropy of the Franco regime, immersed as it was in the reconstruction of its badly-damaged ecclesiastical heritage from the Civil War.

It looks as though Escario approached the project by rejecting literal interpretations of traditional schemes and instead wanted to create a religious space from an ethical perspective, diving into heterodox typological sources as offered by the sacred architecture of the 20th century.

The experimental option of Alejandro de la Sota, the Italianised proposals of Francisco de Assisi Cabrero, and the elaborate geometries (hyperbolic paraboloids) of Luis Moyá Blanco in Torrelavega (1956) and the chapel of the College of Nuestra Señora del Pilar in Madrid (1959), provide the national architectural scene with renewed physiognomies announcing official open-mindedness.

Historiography highlights the slow but sure importation of exogenous patterns that underscore the importance of Miguel Fisac’s trip to Sweden in 1949, which served as a letter of presentation both to the sober classical neo-Empirism of Erik Gunnar Asplund and to the Nordic Organicism of Alvar Aalto – the basis of his elegant calligraphy using prefabricated pieces, bone-beams, curved surfaces, etc.

More influence was brought in by the Navarre-born architect Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza, to whose classes Escario came regularly and who planned together with Luis Laorga the Marian sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de Aránzazu in the town of Oñate.

For this brilliant student of Oiza, the project was an authentic palimpsest: one idea brought another, one intuitive line anticipated a hidden meaning, and the marks always remained for re-use. They were never completed obliterated, as noted by Borges: “We are our memory; we are that chimerical museum of inconstant forms; that pile of broken mirrors.”

In a way, just like Calvino's Invisible Cities encourages us to reflect on the nature of narrative itself, in his fictional account with strong metatextual significance, the architecture of Escario exuberantly displays the numerous variables and alternatives offered by the compositional modalities of his work.

In this sense, Los Filipenses heralds the precocious maturity of its author, consecrating a personal kind of architectural blend in which traditional constructive techniques share space with ancient Castilian-Moorish styles with ingenious impetus from the Levante region.

This duality between orthodox regionalism and cosmopolitan leanings picked up during his stay in Madrid points to his frontier-like profile created with Mies’ structural-geometric essentiality as its physiological manifestation.

In his opera prima we can see clear foreign references to the chapel of Notre-Dame-du Haut (1950-1954) in Ronchamp by Le Corbusier, or the renowned thin-shell designs of Félix Candela for the Núñez family pantheon (1958) in the Colón Cemetery of La Habana and, above all, those of the missionary sanctuary Nuestra Señora de la Soledad del Altillo (1955) in Coyoacán (Mexico DF).

Nevertheless it is with Frank Lloyd Wright and his Unitarian Church (1947-1953) in Shorewood Hills (Wisconsin) where the greatest influence can be seen: geometry in triangular shapes, saddle roof rising up diagonally, load-bearing walls forming a plinth in limestone, overhead lighting, etc.

A deeper interpretation of San Felipe Neri enables us to value the formidable knowledge of the fine Wrightian creed that the newly-fledged Escario professes. He is fascinated by the tremendous integrating capacity of trends (protorationalism all the way to Organiscism, passing through Dutch neoplastic currents) followed by the American (Zevi and Argan).

One of the main postulates of Lloyd Wright was the harmonisation of the construction in line with its natural surroundings. And the Oratorio extends on terrain marking out the structural lines of the site as a means of expressing its will to combine with the outdoor vegetation.

Even today, when the surroundings have been decontextualised due to the irreverent volumetrics of the nearby Abelardo Sánchez park, the sanctuary continues to reveal this aspiration to enter into dialogue with nature.

Just like Lloyd Wright, Escario rejects a priori all historic morphology and typology in preference to introducing models and answers based on abstraction (Einfühlung). Close to the vernacular exercises of Le Corbusier in the 30s, in his first and initiatory project he shows a certain romantic leaning towards craftsmanship and an obsession with reaching the domestic roots of architecture.

The programme was not completely limited to the erection of an ex nuovo temple, but included the remodelling of the College-Residence of the community and the organisation of various amalgamated spaces (assembly room, conference rooms, library, etc.) intended for young ministers and cultural activities.

An extensive functions programme reinforced the evocation of The Unitarian, although the compositional repertoire and formal similarities were greater. Thus, the totemic concept of the cross in the fashion of a freestanding concrete campanile was reminiscent of Asplund in his Skogskyrkogården (Woodland Cemetery) and also of the convent, theological school and church of San Pedro Mártir of the Dominican Fathers of Alcobendas (Madrid).

Included in the Iberian DOCOMOMO is a key piece by Fisac that Escario knows well and from which he takes a few basic concepts, such as lighting and the bell-tower as an icon... But, the use of curves (semicircular presbytery), the textural value of the surfaces and above all the levity of the ceiling, are fully Corbusian.

As in Ronchamp, the roofs and ceilings are presented as analogous to Noah’s Ark from the Judeo-Christian tradition, so they surround the structure like a huge hull covered in wood, floating over the ground and creating distance between the stone side walls to let in thin rays of light.

Except for the image of the Virgin, sculpted by Vilacamps, Escario designed the entire furnishings (seating benches) and the liturgical pieces (confessionals), of note among which is the cubic stone block used for the altar.

This design of its totality favours conceptual unity of the ensemble and over time has permitted us to place more value on Escario's career, developing its own language, although without forgetting the origin and essence of his modernist training.