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Nathalie Grenon

A magnet for opinions: Chiesa del Santo Volto di Gesù (Church of the Holy Face of Jesus), off Rome's Via della Magliana.
By Dianne Bennett & William Graebner
Published: 2013-11-08

athalie Grenon is half of Grenon and Sartogo, the husband-and-wife architecture and design team that as Sartogo Architetti Associati has emerged as a vital force on a Rome scene blossoming with recent or under-construction buildings by A-list architects including Zaha Hadid, Massimiliano Fuksas and Renzo Piano.

The daughter of French and French Canadian diplomats, Grenon describes herself as growing up in no fixed country, her home dependant on her parents' assignment. Landing in Rome for post-graduate studies in the early 1980s, she began working with Piero Sartogo. Sartogo, now 79, opened his Rome studio in 1963 following an apprenticeship with Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus movement.

Nathalie Grenon is half of Grenon and Sartogo.

Though less publicly prominent than her husband, Grenon is a major talent in her own right. Of the couple's teamwork, she says: "He is focused on making; I am focused on using."

The Sartogo studio has had a global imprint, designing college campuses (the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City), furniture, carpets, crystal (for Tiffany's), Italian wineries, and showrooms for Bulgari in Milan, Tokyo, and New York. It is perhaps best known for its design of the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

But what has brought Sartogo and Grenon into the orbit of Rome's "starchitects" is Chiesa del Santo Volto di Gesù (Church of the Holy Face of Jesus), off Via della Magliana just beyond the city's Marconi district. Completed in 2006, it is part of a Rome Archdiocese effort to build a new generation of churches for the city's growing low-income residents, many located in outlying neighborhoods. Another such church is Richard Meier's Dives in Misericordia (known as the Jubilee Church), located on the city's sprawling and often-disconnected southeastern fringes.

Santo Volto is easier to get to and no less striking and innovative than Meier's effort. But unlike his dramatic sail-like structure, Santo Volto is better integrated with its immediate community.

Though commissioned by the diocese, the churches have caused controversy. Some religious authorities still question whether these modern structures create the kind of sacred, awe-inspiring space that religious belief requires.

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner met Grenon at the Sartogo studio off Via Veneto and chatted with her about projects and inspiration.

Some in the Catholic hierarchy say modern churches don't inspire churchgoers. What have you seen?

The Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C. features the studio's angular look.

The church is very popular. In fact, it's oversubscribed, always full. You have to get there early for mass on Sunday to get a seat. People in the area — from elderly ladies to young people — are very proud of it.

The most striking design element in Santo Volto is its split dome. What is the origin of that feature? Do you see it as a post-modern church?

It is not post-modern. The Santo Volto cupola is a reference to the Pantheon, and its idea of the sacred. In the Pantheon the sphere is inside, while in our church, the two halves of the dome are separate: one represents the sacred and the other the profane. All of Rome is constructed with shapes that come from somewhere else.

Looking at the parish buildings — what you call the "profane" or secular buildings — rather than the church structure, the Fascist period seems like an important influence. For example, the rounded portion of the façade, the red coloring, and the glass blocks seem reminiscent of Officine Farneto, one of the refurbished outbuildings of Enrico Del Debbio's Foro Italico, once known as Foro Mussolini.

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