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Can Design Make Religion Cool?

A mega collaboration between U.K firm Steyn Studio and local South African practice TV3 Architects has resulted in what is possibly the coolest church we’ve ever seen – the Bosjes Chapel.

Religion is a bit of an un-tapped market for architects and designers – but when you think about it, it really shouldn’t be. It’s a sector that requires the substance and functionality of the workplace, with the amenities of hospitality and educational facilities and the spectacle of next-gen retail spaces. The opportunities for our industry are huge!

This comes at a time when dogmatic popularity is at an all time low (well, at least the major religions. In fact, being “religious” in this day and age is massively controversial. Here, organised religions are in a desperate position to transform places of worship into something for us Gen-Yers to engage with; to Snapchat and Instagram as we say our Hail Marys or attend our cousin’s christening, #spiritual. And this is where designers have a unique occasion to disrupt a traditionally uninviting and conservative typology, experiment with new ideas and maybe even forge a whole new sector.

Located on the Bosjes Farm in South Africa’s picturesque Witzenberg district, U.K firm Steyn Studio and local South African practice TV3 Architects came to a fork in the road: do the same old thing; thatched roof, stainglass windows and lots of dark timber; or maybe, just maybe – do something a bit more outrageous.

One thing you might notice looking at this space is that it’s positioned within a stunningly rich landscape. Wanting the architecture to respond to and reflect its location, Steyn and TV3 conceptualised a bright white canopy, which undulates above the glazed walls of this chapel, framing views right through it to scenic mountains, vineyards and pomegranate orchards.

The surface of the cast-concrete roof rises and falls to create a sinuous outline around all four facades. At points, the roof form dips down to almost touch the surface of a pool surrounding the building, but lifts dramatically at the four corners. Where the corners of the 420-square-metre building lift upwards, they reveal full-height glazing embellished with tall cross-shaped frames.

One of these cross-shaped frames takes the place of the crucifix that traditionally adorns the walls of churches. A golden pulpit is stationed directly in front of it. The more bulbous curves in the centre of the roof coupled with the raised planes at the corners lend it a wing-like appearance – almost like it were part of the mountainous landscape.

Steyn and TV3 drew [divine] inspiration for the form from the biblical passage Psalm 36:7: “How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”

“Its serene sculptural form emulates the silhouette of surrounding mountain ranges, paying tribute to the historic Cape Dutch gables dotting the rural landscapes of the Western Cape,” says Steyn Studio founder and South-African-born, Coetzee Steyn. The single-storey building is elevated on a plinth, standing level with the water, giving it the appearance after dark of hovering just above the pool. “The crisp white form is conceived as a lightweight and dynamic structure which appears to float within the valley,” added TV3. “A reflective pond emphasises the apparent weightlessness of the structure.”

Inside, shadows are cast by the uneven surface of the white-washed ceiling, and the sunlight is reflected by the polished (and ever-popular) terrazzo flooring.

Simple wooden pews with dark blue padding are positioned on either side of a central aisle, which extends out into a jetty across the reflective pool to link the chapel with the vineyard and pomegranate orchard planted around it. To help keep the space free from unnecessary obstacles that might detract from the views, functions are concealed within the base of the building. Here, the structure (unlike a traditional church) really invites its users to commune with nature, thus reputedly enhancing the spiritual experience for church-goers.

Though I’m definitely not a religious person, the architectural rebelliousness of the Bosjes Chapel makes me want to look into it – or at least post a quick insta – which for a post-modern market is the most valuable currency you can have. 

Project credits:
Design architect: Steyn Studio
Project architect: TV3 Architects
Furniture design: Liam Mooney Studio
Contractor: Longworth & Faul
Structural engineer: Henry Fagan & Partners
Mechanical and electrical engineer: Solution Station
Quantity surveyor: De Leeuw
Planning consultant: Ron Brunings
Landscape architect: CNdV Landscape Architects
Heritage consultants: Graham Jacobs, Elzet Albertyn & Lize Malan


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