Creating a clear and legible space of spiritual purity, Wutopia Lab’s Fengxian Qixian Jesus Church, south of Shanghai, posits the sublime calm of faith within a vast metropolis.
October 26th, 2023
With a project of this scale and timeframe, change is inevitable. As chief architect Yu Ting explains, however, “When I was younger I would have called it a compromise. During the eight long years, I understood the keyword ‘relax’ in traditional Chinese architecture as Zhuang Shen mentioned.” As such, the details have been adjusted flexibly to ensure both fault tolerance and visual integrity are maintained.
The large white veil enveloping the project, for example, was initially designed as perforated aluminium. However, improvements in manufacturing meant expanded mesh had become available with the visual impact the design required, while being both less expensive and affording better wind resistance.
The veil is a key component to the design that signals the 2500-square-metre space as a glowing white architectural presence in what is otherwise a city of dull brown buildings. For Ting, the delta area of the Yangtze river – the Jiangnan region where mountains and river meet, and mist prevails – provided visual cues for the church. “I was fascinated by the use of translucency as a contemporary expression of what I understood to be the restrained beauty of Jiangnan and the struggling forces behind it,” says Ting.
In particular, Ting was looking to provide an embodiment of the “obscure light of Jiangnan through architecture.” The veil thereby provides a means for shadows on the visual interface to change with daylight and the shadows. It also allows a combination of projections and natural light to create drama or be softened as needs require. Filtering sunlight was a further consideration with the mesh acting as a screen to unpredictable weather conditions. “More importantly,” notes Ting, “it signifies the field within the interface as a complete place – going inside is entering a new territory.”
Responding to a brief that required the main and ancillary buildings to be separated, the design is fulcrumed around a 16.7-metre-high main hall as the core of the main building. Offices and other facilities were inserted on the west and north sides, while a small auditorium was positioned on the highest level of the office area to create a vertical community. The ancillary building provides the canteen, and the whole is within a city-block-sized parkland of lawns and trees.
“Treating the entire site as a building called a place is my most significant strategy. I have erected a translucent enclosing veil as a visual boundary around the architectural control line, while the main and ancillary buildings are buildings within this field defined by this veil. Together they form a complete architectural expression, a complete place,” says Ting.
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Effectively arranged as a space within the space, the white steel mesh of the veil (with a traditional cruciform embedded in the southern park facing perimeter) is supported by large white steel columns. With a lawn and pavers between, this sits out from the building proper while a dense grey steel grille creates a further internal layer to the river side and entrance side of the grey concrete form of the auditorium.
With skylights and windows to the north and south, the internal barrier becomes a surface for reflections and shadows while also casting its own squared cross motif onto the veil, building walls and auditorium interior. “The vertical continuous reflections of the aluminium grille and the skylight together form a curtain of light that feels like a rain screen; the crowd is within encompassing curtain of light, where their heart belongs,” says Ting.
The need for clear boundary definitions was somewhat challenged by structural needs and, while Ting rejected side angled supports which would have been “sticking out from the main structure”, he did strengthen the whole. To this end, the cross-sections of the supporting columns have been enlarged, while diagonal struts have been added. Most significantly, columns to both sides of the main auditorium have been added. This effectively negates the need for two large beams across the curved ceiling, which would have interrupted the transverse skylight.
Within the concept of a place, the design plays with symmetry to create a natural sort of balance. As such, the main building sits parallel but off-centre to the veil, while the auditorium sits parallel but off-centre to the main building.
“This new layout not only avoids the rigidity of conventional symmetries but also opens up possibilities for some lively vitality while maintaining the sanctity of symmetry in areas in need,” says Ting. The arrangement of spaces also allows the auditorium to face directly south. When weather allows, the main hall can be opened completely so the outdoor field can be used as an extension of the auditorium site and bring the outside into the auditorium.
“You stand in the middle of the main auditorium, the interior floor extends to the further earth outside, the light of the sky is as soft as a drizzle hitting your head, and you feel that the world, ebbs and flows like the sea,” says Ting.
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