Padre Pio's Shrine, as the Architect Sees It

Renzo Piano Talks of Monumental Church in San Giovanni Rotondo

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ROME, JULY 23, 2004 (ZENIT.orgAvvenire).- The newly inaugurated shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, dedicated to Padre Pio, will likely be regarded as one of the great architectural works of the start of the millennium.

The Capuchin friars of the community of the religious of the stigmata entrusted the project to one of the world’s most prestigious architects, Renzo Piano. The work, inaugurated July 1, has room for 8,000 people. The press has described it as the largest Catholic church after St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

In this interview, Piano talked about the way he developed the project.

Q: Is it true that it was difficult for the Capuchin friars to convince you to accept the project?

Piano: It’s true, but not because I wasn’t interested in the topic of the shrine. Quite the opposite. I consider it a great honor that they proposed the project to me: I am a Catholic by formation and conviction.

But, from my experience, a church designed for recollection, for prayer, for meditation, cannot be of great dimensions. An imposing building expresses power, grandiloquence — something other than what Padre Pio represented.

But Father Gerardo, responsible for the construction of the new shrine, would send me his blessings every morning. In the end he convinced me to go visit the place. I know well the beauty of the landscapes of Puglia. But this valley, dotted with white stone, is something special. It finally seduced me. Then I began to imagine how the new shrine might be.

Q: Are you pleased?

Piano: Of course, in part because in the course of the elaboration and execution of the project, the great dimensions were gradually reduced to proportions more in keeping with the image I had of a place of prayer.

The hall can hold thousands of people but in its interior a sense of recollection is maintained, thanks to the placement of the pews and the way that the stained-glass windows reflect the light in the interior.

Q: How did you achieve this result?

Piano: I also became somewhat of a Capuchin: I observed the way of life of the brothers. I conversed attentively with liturgist Crispino Valenziano. I studied the history of the liturgy and of religion.

If I had planned a church with a nave, an imposing church would have resulted, similar to St. Peter’s in the order of grandeur. But I chose a radial structure, centered on the altar with the assembly gathered around and divided in sectors by large arcades that originate from the one center.

Moreover, I selected materials that express simplicity and solidity: local stone and wood, as well as the glass of the windows.

The result has been a hall rich in vibrations and «atmospheric resonance,» not only when the magnificent organ is heard, but also because of the effect of the light, which filters indirectly in the ambience and is concentrated directly on the altar.

The Baroque churches were also conceived this way: A shaft of light pierces the diffused atmosphere pointing to the center of the celebration. It is a dramatic effect: Architecture is also the art of stirring emotions.

Q: In addition to the light, the acoustics are also important.

Piano: As I did for the Berlin auditorium, I worked with the German acoustics expert Helmut Müller.

The first step was to decide where the organ should be. This church has a rather long period of reverberation [the time it takes sound to return to the origin after «rebounding» on the walls]: 4-5 seconds, as becomes a large ecclesial hall, suited to sacred music.

But in addition to the acoustics, there is the metaphoric aspect, as music and architecture are similar, although one is obviously material and the other apparently immaterial. Both are made of «rooms,» my friend Luciano Berio used to say, … because music comes in and out, in its movements, as through successive rooms — as does one who moves through architecture. In this church, space also has a rhythm.

Q: How did you decide on a spiral floor, akin to a shell?

Piano: The place suggested it to me, because places also speak, even if at times architects do not know how to listen to them.

The little valley that is behind the old church has a distinct, obvious character. When descending, it suggests the idea of a great churchyard that ends below in a circular space; from this stems the shape of the church.

It is also due to the fact that one wishes to bring the assembly as close as possible to the altar so this circular shape is the best. The large arcades separate the hall in segments. Each of these has dimensions similar to those of a church of some 300-400 seats. Thus every individual segment is like a small church.

The sensation of grandiloquence of the great basilicas is due to the fact that in their naves the space is not interrupted. Here, however, it is in rhythm with the stone arches that support the roofing, as well as by the oak pews whose planks are 10 centimeters thick. The arches are unequal among themselves, and are of increasing size.

Q: You are known for using very advanced technologies.

Piano: I come from a family of builders and I think I have in my blood the desire to experiment. I did so in the Potsdamer Platz of Berlin as well as in the New Caledonia cultural center, with structures like cabins, with wooden logs up to 28 meters high.

I like to get hold of old materials and rejuvenate them with today’s technologies. This is why I used stone for the shrine.

The technique with which we made the large arches of San Giovanni Rotondo could give a new impetus to the use of this old material. Of course, they could also have done it in the Middle Ages, but they would have had to use thousands of stonecutters for who knows how long.

Q: How have you worked with the artists?

Piano: I spend my life in constant dialogue with artists. In this connection, Monsignor Valenziano’s advice was also precious. We called Roy Liechtenstein for the Eucharistic chapel. But, unfortunately, he passed away, and we preferred not to have others complete his work.

Arnaldo Pomodoro made the large cross that characterizes the place of the altar. Giuliano Vangi made the ambo. Mimmo Paladino the door. Also, Robert Rauschenberg worked a long time on the representation of the Apocalypse of the large stained glass window. But his work must still find a suitable liturgical response, and for the time being it remains in the drawer.

Q: Are you ready to design another church?

Piano: Don’t believe it. The first time does not imply that it is more difficult to plan a building in particular. It is also difficult afterward.

My profession requires working with the material, but also with ideas, and each project has its soul. Moreover, I would now feel as though I am betraying this church which I have just finished.

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