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The Vatican is making a surprising debut at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018

It has been confirmed and deserves some exclamation marks: The Vatican is – for the first time ever – participating in the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, which will open on 26 May.

Ten international architects have been invited to design and construct 10 different chapels as part of the representation of the city-state in the highly anticipated Italian architecture event.

A compilation of the design proposals for the ‘Vatican Chapels’ project.

The Catholic Church’s debut pavilion will comprise 10 full-scale chapels that will be built on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, opposite St. Mark’s Square, marking a new era of change for the college of cardinals.

‘Vatican Chapels’, as the installation is officially known, invites visitors on a journey through the chapels that are commissioned from top architects including Francesco Cellini (Italy), Andrew Berman (USA), Teronobu Fujimori (Japan) and Norman Foster (UK).

Javier Corvalan’s reimagination for the collective installation. Credit: Javier Corvalan

As part of their brief, these chapels must be able to be relocated so that each of the structures can be deployed around the world in areas that are in need of places of worship, especially those that have suffered earthquakes. It also to be inspired by the 1920s chapel designed by Gunnar Asplund. And of course, the ten symbolically refer to the Ten Commandments; a sort of Decalogue of presences in the holy testament.

Rio de Janeiro-based architect Carla Juaçaba with a series of overlapping crucifixes in reflective stainless steel. Credit: Carla Juaçaba

An excerpt from the official press release describes the project as such: “A visit to the ten Vatican Chapels, then, is a sort of pilgrimage that is not only religious but also secular. It is a path for all who wish to rediscover beauty, silence, the interior and transcendent voice, the human fraternity of being together in the assembly of people, and the loneliness of the woodland where one can experience the rustle of nature which is like a cosmic temple.”

A new Catholic reformation and who is running it
The question that lingers in our heads at the moment: how Vatican City is coming out of silence – all of a sudden – and playing such a radical game of public propaganda? The answer is one man – Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who is bringing a new perspective to the (occasionally) vexed relationship between the church and the world.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi having a chat with Donatella Versace at the recent Met Gala 2018. Credit: Getty Images

This is also the second time that Cardinal Ravasi has been instrumental in creating such a controversial headline in the global art scene. In fact, his involvement has been pivotal in the making of the New York fashion exhibition Heavenly Bodies and the Met Gala, where pop sensation Rihanna appeared as an ostentatiously shiny pope.

Cardinal Ravasi, who has described David Bowie as “always on the unstable boundary between the sacred and the profane”, has been a major force in blurring boundaries and encouraging critical dialogues on behalf of the pope with the contemporary world.

UK architect Norman Foster proposes a tent-like structure made from wood, built around three symbolic crosses. Credit: Foster + Partners

The designs of the chapels are also as radical as the man behind the initiative. London-based Norman Foster will be presenting a tent-like structure in wood, built around three symbolic crosses. Andrew Berman, a New York-based architect translates a design more akin to the original Asplund’s chapel.

A proposal by Sean Godsell. Credit: Sean Godsell

Sean Godsell, a Melbourne-based architect has imagined a bell tower while architect Carla Juaçaba from Rio de Janeiro has put together a series of overlapping crucifixes in reflective stainless steel – all of which to create discussions and questions about the church’s archetype.

No matter how controversial this topic may be, the openness to share the very fundamental of the church in a global perspective is something that we all can look forward to. The liberalism to progress in such a diverse world may bear fruit to many more exciting things to come. And ultimately, the world is changing. If the Vatican has taken this leap of faith, what will be next?

The Vatican pavilion will be opened to the public from 26 May to 25 November 2018.

Martin Teo
Martin has a bent for history and food culture, especially of the Peranakan heritage. Since the pandemic, he finds joy in plant parenting and continues to expand his collection of Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Syngoniums. He's now on a lookout for the elusive Philodendron Florida Beauty to add to his urban garden.