This Alpine Chapel Receives a Vital Update

Nestled beneath the Italian Alps, Saint Joseph in the Woods sits in a remote setting outside the northern Italian city Bolzano. Messner Architects were tasked with the job of giving a necessary renovation that would both recreate and preserve the much loved 1950s chapel.

LST_01_east facade
LST_03_view onto presbytery
LST_15_meditation room

Messner Architects is a brother and sister-run architecture and design studio based in northern Italy. The studio philosophy of design is characterised by an ease of approach to a continuum of related tools and activities: digital technology and traditional artisanship are equally privileged, and furniture design, landscaping and housing projects are equally engaged in as though they are one and the same.

Messner Architects approached Saint Joseph in the Woods with the amount of depth needed to craft it into the space for spirituality and reflection already existing in its environment. Among their improvements was the maximisation of natural light by knocking through parts of walls to be converted to glass, helping the chapel breathe in the life from its surroundings.

LST_22_east facade dawn

David and Verena took some time out of creating and meditating to talk to us at THE PLUS.

THE PLUS: What was the process of knocking the bottom of the back wall through like? Was there any worry about causing structural damage? 
David and Verena:
The key note in developing the architectural concept is the phrase ‘church in the woods‘. Breaking through the back wall was an amazing and confirming moment with all the light invading the space. As the dimensions of the aperture are considerable, two steel beams had to be put in above as load-distributing elements. 

TP: How did you aim to capture the essence of spirituality in the church?
In the end only two architectural interventions determine the conversion of St. Joseph in the woods. On one hand it is the breakthrough of the sacred space to the landscape, on the other hand it is the opening of the gable to the piazza. Both interventions trigger off a dialogue between inside and outside, in other words between the man-made and the grown. An important step consisted of liberating the church from recent interferences so that space and emptiness, brightness and peace would be embedded in the soul of the converted sacred space. 


TP: The gneissic rock creates a touch of shadow and fixity in an otherwise bright and well-lit church – what inspired you to add this to the colour scheme?
The liturgical objects altar, ambo and the priest’s chair are solid monoliths of a local variety of gneissic rock resting on the translucent glass bases. The light breaks through the fragile bases and makes the heavy masses hover above the ground. Gravity and weightlessness united in these main objects express the aspiration for the divine and the closeness to heaven.

TP: The attic is a beautiful space for meditation. Do you like to meditate?
Absolutely! Practicing yoga and meditation strongly influenced the conception of this space.
And indeed the attic is used for yoga and meditation courses. Experienced people really appreciate the atmosphere of this tent-shaped space, which gives you the sensation of openness, ease and cosiness, all at the same time.

TP: Is the community happy with the renovation? 
They are perfectly happy! The main focus of the conversion laid in achieving a friendly and inviting atmosphere and a well-defined architectural structure – and we succeeded.

LST_08_view from presbytery

TP: What do you like most about renovating churches? 
Churches have been a special typology of building for nearly 2,000 years. Their main focus lies in offering spiritual health, consolation and peace. Therefore projects concerning sacred spaces are a unique possibility to think and build architecture totally different. 

TP: What are the essential characteristics of a well-designed church?
Italy in particular offers a rich variety of sacred buildings, ranging from early Christian and Byzantine age through Renaissance and Baroque up to contemporary church buildings by architects like Giovanni Michelucci and Massimiliano & Doriana Fuksas. Observing recent projects all around the world the focus for designing sacred spaces – leaving aside the different formal languages – lies in how light invades the space. Consider Peter Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Chapel, St. Moritz Church renovation by John Pawson, Rainbow Chapel (Coordination Asia), Saint Bernard’s Chapel (Nicolás Campodonico) and Sayama Forest Chapel (Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP) – to mention a few astonishing examples.

LST_07_altar base detail
LST_04_view towards exit
LST_14_attic floor
LST_16_attic floor detail
LST_17_attic floor balcony
LST_10_west facade
LST_11_staircase entrance
LST_02_west facade
LST_20_east facade dawn
LST_21_east facade dawn
LST_19_south facade dawn
LST_18_west facade dawn