March 23, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Nathalie Grenon

By Dianne Bennett & William Graebner
Published: 2013-11-08

I wouldn't say that. In terms of the materials we use, yes, they're certainly part of the Roman architectural language. But they were selected for their look.

A busy, often unattractive street, Via della Magliana, bounds the Santo Volto site, What aspects of this reality affected the church's design?

The site of the church is critical. It's the idea of a city; it's urban. The language of the architecture here is the mass and the void. The void becomes a dynamic element, the void is inserted by creating a mass; and so there's that tension, as there is tension between the urban environment and the sacred.

One of the striking aspects of Santo Volto is the artistic works on display in the church and the parish buildings. How were you able to do that?

We enlisted and selected the artists. There was no budget for them; they had to practically donate their work. Some were famous, some not. We told the artists their work had to be part of a dialogue with the city. They were very enthusiastic. It was after then-Pope Benedict visited Santo Volto [in May 2009] that he declared the Catholic Church a patron for contemporary artists. He invited 500 artists to the Vatican to encourage them to create works for the Church. We think the experience at Santo Volto inspired this.

There's Mimmo Paladino's ceramic tile "Stations of the Cross" and Carla Accardi's glass screen. Both are beautiful, contemporary, and compelling. But what about the artist who created the luminescent holy face of Jesus — the Santo Volto — on glass?

He's a young artist, Pietro Ruffo, and this was basically his first commissioned work. Again, we wanted the sense of two sides — one facing the sacred area. The colors too fit the confessional area, where the face is located; all blues. Now, many more people are interested in his work.

Perhaps the most striking element of artistic intervention in the church is the crucifix, which is on the enormous window in back of the altar — the half-cupola, if you will. How did you decide on that crucifix?

It's a long story. Basically our initial plans for the center of that window didn't work out. We had nothing there, and Pope Benedict was scheduled to visit. The Church was calling us every week, but we didn't have the right icon for the altar window. We knew we didn't want things from other centuries.

This is the first church to present 15, rather than 14, Stations of the Cross — the 15th is the resurrection. So we came up with a cross: crucifixion and resurrection. I designed a cross that I thought showed both of these and that fit with the 21st-century church. It was put in place temporarily when the pope visited. The reaction was so positive that it was made permanent. Now, at the Vatican bookshop, a smaller version of this crucifix is the only contemporary cross one can purchase.

You and your husband, Piero, are jointly listed as the principal architects of Santo Volto. How did you work together on the church?

The church is really his church. "My" church is not yet approved. It's still in the preliminary stages of approval. Piero is the principal designer of Santo Volto. He came up with the idea of the tension between mass and void. He also is very concerned with light. Light is essential.

Do you sense a difference between female and male architects, or between you and your husband? In a 2012 article, you said women architects take longer to develop their identity, that they emphasize intuition over reason, and are concerned about saving resources.

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