The Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Lande
Sited in a neighborhood south of Rennes, a broad-brush residential area consisting of mostly five-storey housing blocks, this is the first church built in France’s Brittany region in the 21st century.
Af Elliott Webb
Architectural photographer Joao Morgado has shared a series of photographs featuring Alvaro Siza’s recently inaugurated Church of Saint-Jacques de la Lande, in Rennes, France. Such symbolic and significant pieces of architecture are not new accomplishments for the office of Alvaro Siza Vieira, though this one holds new significance.
At a time when the historical significance of the church’s aesthetic and an ever-growing and gentrifying modern context are in stark contrast, the Church of Saint-Jacques de la Lande showcases a triumph by encapsulating the moments of splendor that empower the church’s symbolic significance as place, while also integrating into the unique urban fabric of its surrounds.
The Church adapts to the existing plan and dimensions left by the layout of the proximal apartment blocks. It closes off the U-shaped and L-shaped master plans of the surrounding buildings, creating a courtyard typology in its context and becomes a signifier in the landscape along the small river at its edge. As it does not sit on a central corner of a city block, with large entry steps and a glorified civic presence, its positioning and architectural response becomes quite important. One of the accomplishments of the Church is that it begins to tie its formal response to the local residents by entering as a significant object in the landscape and also an extension of the civic and pedestrian facilities that the neighborhood shares at ground level.
The exterior is made of white reinforced concrete walls. The large rectangular form of cast white concrete – a trademark of Siza’s playfulness with form and light – creates a monolithic attitude to the exterior, a nod to the large utilitarian facades and sizes of the apartment blocks to the north. Gestures of excavated volumes and detailed incisions begin to transform the building into a unique ceremonial space that resonates in its context.
One of the hallmarks of the building is the circular volume on the second floor that pokes its head out of the volumes it sits in. This circular volume houses the main Chapel holding up to 120 people. By floating the main Chapel, the ground floor is freed up for social and administrative use, allowing the Chapel to be viewed as an object of sanctity with greater access to natural light, separate to the directorial areas. Alongside the building, also made of white concrete, are two concrete pillars, bent at their peak and suspending ornate ceremonial bells. The removal of this sculptural element from the main form still allows it to connect to the church’s function but disallows the datum of the traditional bell tower to be domineering in its context.
Framing the small entrance, two rectangular volumes spanning full height break off to the west, and another two identical volumes to the east. These volumes cantilever the superimposed cylindrical chapel on the second floor and free up the ground level for the Parish Centre. The entrance is small and homely as with other administrative entrances, each with fine timber detailing which emits a warm tempered glow through them. On the opposite side to the entrance (or entrances) are large full-length windows on the ground floor, resembling a living room. These almost residential details engage the surrounding open space and walkways, giving the sensation of a neighborly openness and a clever social response to the community and other buildings. These minimal openings at ground level also help establish the building as a solid presence in the natural environment, where the heaviness and symbolic nature of the church is still achieved above in its form, height, and scale.
Upon entry, the heaviness of the concrete form is beautifully excavated and glimpses of wooden detailing are exemplified and dragged internally, drawing certain moments of the ritualistic procession through to the Chapel. The interior’s ground plane is all paved in marble, highlighted against the white walls. Access between floors is via a lift and two staircases, one exposed and the other concealed to the restricted access sacristy. At the second level, the main cylindrical Chapel contains the baptismal font, a semi-circular apse and the image of the Virgin and the Tabernacle all to the south. Laterally to the north is a bespoke wooden crucifix creating a diagonal axis to the main staircase that defines the position of the altar.
All of these significant moments are lit from above indirectly through large apertures and clerestories in the ceiling. Light reflects down the curved walls controlled by a suspended rectangular volume above the congregation zone. Simple and beautifully made furniture, sculptures and detailing of natural wood by Alvaro Siza sit effortlessly within this space, not distracting from the simplicity of the architecture but adding aesthetic and monastic importance. The congregation zone and altar are still defined by a single axis, yet the position of certain religious objects and the illuminated curved volume give one the sense of being ‘in the round’. One finds themselves surrounded by the sanctity of the church’s symbols and natural light.
The Church of Saint-Jacques de la Lande’s weighty presence in the residential neighborhood of Rennes, France is tempered playfully through Alvaro Siza’s intricate carving, simplistic palette and clever use of light within this exploration of form. It is an architectural triumph both in its residential context and within the discipline of the religious architecture of the 21st century.