LOCATION Milan, Italy
YEAR 1989
THEME Architecture, Sacred spaces, Church
STATUS Competition
DESIGNERS Antonio Monestiroli
TEAM  Silvia Gambirasio, Luca Morganti, Raffaella Neri 
scenography Ezio Frigerio

The design of a church, generally considered “the most difficult project,” poses as a priority question that of defining its meaning. It is a collective building, a hall with a strong community value. A place where a community gathers and participates in a ritual that unites them. This concept of communion is the theme on which architects of all times have applied themselves in the search for an evocative form in this sense. What distinguishes architects of the past from moderns is the loss of any symbolic correspondence between form and meaning, hence the great difficulty for modern architecture to represent the “sacred value” of such a building.

However, if it is not possible to believe in the symbolism of forms such as the Latin cross, the dome, etc., which if adopted today show themselves to be rhetorical, it is necessary to set ourselves the goal of the representation of the meaning of the building, without renouncing a monumental form, proper not only to the church but to every collective building. By monumentality I mean the exact correspondence of a form to its most authentic meaning. One example of monumentality achieved by modern architecture we have, clear and valuable, and that is Le Corbusier’s La Tourette convent church, an example of exact correspondence, a strongly evocative place, which in the unity of space, through its proportional ratios, represents its most general meaning, its character. Le Corbusier’s building is a church that does not pose the problem of the “extraordinary,” that rejects all attempts, in the end always individualistic, to “step out of the ordinary,” seeking to interpret the sacred through unusual forms. The beauty of this example lies in the simplicity of the forms, in the wisdom with which Le Corbusier knows how to recognize the sacred in the everyday and how to represent it through a simple system of relationships. Located within a large green area, which will form the central axis of the entire neighborhood, the San Romano complex should define itself as an autonomous system surrounded only by tall trees. The characters of the location suggested the typological layout: a place bordered by a wall and divided into two parts, the first uncovered, the churchyard, the second covered, the church. The wall is the enclosure that identifies the sacred place, which has similar characters in the two parts of the churchyard and the church. The churchyard is open on one side to the trees between which the complex is located. This will thus have two successive entrances placed on the same axis of symmetry, a first entrance to the churchyard and a second entrance to the church proper. The more general sense of the building is entrusted to the enclosure that becomes the constituent element of the type adopted. It is the same enclosure that builds the gateway to the churchyard and continues, perimetering the place, until it concludes with the bell tower. Outside this will be arranged all the ancillary functions. The construction of the building is closely related to the typological choice. There are two elements: the wall built of exposed brick, and the roof and front of the church built of painted iron. The metal roof of the church is contained between two sides of the perimeter wall. The front of the church, defined by a double order of metal pillars, gives accomplished form to the boundary between exterior and interior while allowing the visual relationship between the two parts having both equal importance. The unity between the two parts is emphasized by the continuity of the perimeter wall that the front of the church does not want to interrupt. The typological choice still suggests the internal distribution, clearly emphasizing the hierarchy of places. The central place is the churchyard and the church that is its direct extension. With the doubling of the wall of the enclosure, a corridor open to the churchyard is defined which distributes on three levels the meeting rooms, the catechism rooms, and the priests’ quarters. Overlooking the church with large openings are the baptistery, side chapel, and sacristy. In the basement, a large multipurpose hall can be reached by a staircase located in the bell tower. The decorum of a building, often confused with ornament, is a principle that includes all those formal choices designed to define its character. Like construction, decorum must be consistent with type, give meaning to construction through the choice of materials and the definition of their use, and must guide the choice of ornamentation. In general, we believe that the process of eliminating the superfluous, seeking the essential quality of forms, their exact correspondence to meaning, is the way to define the decorum of buildings. As far as the specificity of religious building is concerned, I believe that decorum is to be sought through proportional ratios, the forms and materials of construction, the relationship of forms to light. The proportional relationships of the church of San Romano are studied not only in the church itself, but in the churchyard-church succession along the longitudinal axis leading to the altar. The path of approach to the altar is built on an axis of symmetry along which different episodes follow one another: the portal of access to the churchyard, the side opening of the churchyard onto the park, the front of the church, the entrance through the stained-glass window that divides exterior from interior, the crossing of the church to the altar, and finally the apse. Everything converges at the altar. It is in this system of relationships that the character of the church is defined and not in its parts individually. The form of each part and element must relate to this succession of places, and accentuate the experience. The materials adopted, exposed brick and painted iron, construct a place in itself unadorned in which what remains is the quality of the relationships between the elements and their dimensions. Light, which is a determining factor in the church, should help strengthen the character of the building by highlighting significant places. Light enters from the front, from the large open window on the right side of the chancel, from the apse on which a skylight opens, from the openings of the baptistery and the side chapels also covered by two skylights. Light therefore is concentrated in the most important places in the church, on the altar and the apse, places where the whole perspective system converges. The window in the chancel takes light from an upper skylight and not directly from outside obeying a principle of privacy proper to this kind of building. The only opening to the outside is through the entrance window into the churchyard and, through this, into the surrounding greenery. Ornament is also a chapter that must contribute to defining the general principle on which the project is built; ornament must also insist on defining the meaning of the building. In the project, ornament is understood in two different ways: an illustrative first. The bare perimeter walls built of exposed brick support the statues depicting the figures of the saints and the paintings of the way of the cross. In the large space of the chancel then it is possible to place, behind the altar and in front of the apse, the statues of the Savior, Our Lady, and St. Roman. A second way in which ornamentation is used is decorative. In this case, collaboration with set designer Ezio Frigerio was invaluable. It is Frigerio’s idea to evoke in the modern church the ancient church by arranging along the open side of the churchyard and in continuation along the same side of the church a row of semi-columns, built of painted sheet metal capable of recalling the edge of an ancient nave and emphasizing the perspective that from the outside leads inside to the altar and then into the apse. The apse, which is a contracted space contained between two walls spaced four meters apart, stands as the backdrop of a theater in which the same perspective of columns this time arranged on two sides and under the open sky is permanently set up. In analogy with Bramante’s “admirable artifice” in the church of San Satiro in Milan.


Massimo Ferrari (edit by) Antonio Monestiroli Opere, progetti e studi di architettura Electa Milan 2001