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Iconic Arcs: Jubilee Church by Richard Meier & Partners

Rome: White concrete "sails" soar into a Roman neighborhood.

by ArchNewsNow
October 23, 2003

As if anyone would need an excuse to go to Rome…here’s another. This Sunday, October 26th, marks the much anticipated opening of the Jubilee Church (Dio Padre Misericordioso), designed by Richard Meier & Partners. The church is already an iconic landmark of contemporary architecture in one of the world’s most historic cities, and it is sure to establish a new paradigm for international church design.


This is Meier’s third ecclesiastical building, after the Crystal Cathedral’s International Center for Possibility Thinking in Garden Grove, California (2003), and the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut (1981). The project began in 1995 as an invited competition that included Tadao Ando, Günter Behnisch, Santiago Calatrava, Peter Eisenman, and Frank Gehry. Meier was awarded the commission in 1996, and construction began in 1998. It is the 50th new church and community center built throughout the suburbs of Rome, with 15 more planned for completion.


The church sits on a flat, triangular site in Tor Tre Teste (named for a bas relief of three heads carved in a medieval guard tower dating back to the 4th Century) about six miles east of central Rome. It is adjacent to a lower/middle-income housing complex built in the 1970s on the boundary of a public park.


The 108,414 square-foot complex contains both a church and a Community Center, connected by a four-story atrium. The project features concrete, stucco, travertine, and glass. Three dramatic concrete shells arc in graduated heights from 56 to 88 feet that bring to mind gliding white sails. Glass ceilings and skylights in the church span the entire length of the building filling the space with natural light. At night, light emanates from within creating an ethereal presence and animating the landscape. The main nave seats 240, and a day chapel seats 24.


The plan relates to the triangular site. The sacred realm to the south, where the nave is located, is separated from the secular precinct to the north; pedestrian approaches are from both the housing complex to the east and the parking lot to the west.


The proportions of the complex are based on a series of displaced squares and four circles. Three circles of equal radius generate the profiles of the three shells that, together with the spine-wall, make up the body of the church nave – and discretely imply the Holy Trinity.


The western side of the church site is laid out as two courts separated by a paved causeway running east/west between the community center to the north and the church to the south. The northern most court adjacent to the center has a recreational garden. The second court features a reflecting pool and is intended as a meditation space.


The four-level community center functions as a key gathering place for social, educational, and recreational activities. A paved pedestrian approach or sagrato (churchyard) on the east, near the center of the adjacent Tor Tre Teste housing project, encourages parishioners to gather in the piazza as was done in the sagrati of medieval Italy.


“With the Jubilee Church, we have worked to create a new Roman Catholic church for the 21st century – a landmark that upholds and builds upon the city’s rich architectural tradition,” says Richard Meier, FAIA. “I am honored to have this wonderful opportunity to be a part of history and a partner in the Arch Diocese of Rome’s Jubilee celebrations.”


This Sunday, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, Vicar General, will consecrate the church, named Dio Padre Misericordioso (God our Merciful Father) by His Holiness Pope John Paul II, on the occasion of his 25th anniversary as Pontiff.


Q&A with Richard Meier


The goal of most religious architecture is to convey spiritual power. How does your design convey that kind of spirit?


Richard Meier: Light is the protagonist of our understanding and reading of space. Light is the means by which we are able to experience what we call sacred. Light is at the origins of this building. I am reminded of H.G. Gadamer’s words in The Relevance of the Beautiful: “We only have to think of certain expressions like the ‘play of light’ and the ‘play of the waves’ where we have such a constant coming and going, back and forth, a movement that is not tied down to any goal. That the sense of freedom and movement – both in human festivities, and also in natural phenomena as the play of light – may be seen as fundamentally theological.”


If you visit Borromini’s church (Chiesa di S. Ivo alla Sapienza), you will experience a glorious white interior filled with light and magic. It is one of the great works of architecture of 16th century Rome. Also, S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, also by Borromini, has a quite animated interior.


In the Jubilee Church, the three concrete shells define an enveloping atmosphere in which the light from the skylights above creates a luminous spatial experience, and the rays of sunlight serve as a mystic metaphor of the presence of God.


The Jubilee Church is not a traditional church. If the Vicariato wanted a traditional church, they would not have invited me to participate in the competition. This church was always intended to be a work of contemporary architecture, meaningful for our time and one that is marked by openness. Transparency and light cascade down from the skylit roof, literally invading the interior of the church and also penetrating from below through a narrow slot opened at floor level. People in the atrium are enveloped with mystical light.


Which churches inspired you?


RM: When I began to think about this church, I thought about the churches in which the presence of the sacred could be felt: Alvar Aalto’s churches in Finland, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wayfairer’s Chapel in the United States, along with the Chapel at Ronchamp and La Tourette by Le Corbusier came to mind. These are contemporary churches that have impressed me most, and I would say that what they all share is the importance of light.


The Jubilee Church is situated in the outskirts of Rome in Tor Tre Teste, a middle-income housing project built in the 1970’s. How does this new church relate to that neighborhood?


RM: The purpose of this church is to weave an isolated residential district back into the communal fabric of Rome. I hope we accomplished this architecturally by creating a sense of appropriateness, flow, and movement throughout the site. The Jubilee Church and Community Center will provide the more than 8,000 residents of the immediate area a space for ritual, play, and celebration. Hopefully, the more than 25,000 residents of the larger area of Tor Tre Teste will avail themselves of the church facilities as well. The placement of the building in the area where apartment buildings fan out from the main street of the complex creates an anchor for the area. As one approaches, the lines of access are so visually clear that one is drawn directly into the church.


How much freedom were you afforded in the design? Was the Vatican a demanding client?


RM: The Vicariato wanted the project to be exactly as presented in the competition proposal without any changes whatsoever. An architect cannot ask for more support than that. I was given complete freedom. However, it has the traditional organization in relation to the altar and the chapel to the side. The criticism could be made that it is too traditional in its organization.


Is this the first time the concrete shell material was used?


RM: The white cement was originally invented for the Olympic Stadium in Rome, designed by Pier Luigi Nervi. This material was suggested to me by Ing. Gennaro Guala of Italcementi. It is a beautiful white concrete with a smooth finish that resembles polished marble without veining. The engineering effort involved in erecting the shells was Herculean, and Italcementi did a fantastic job of realizing my design.


You are the first Jewish architect in history to design a church for the Roman Catholic Church. How do you feel about that?


RM: I feel extremely proud. It is very clear that the Catholic Church chose my design based on its merits, not because of a need to make a statement in regard to their relationship to Jews throughout history. Three of the architects in the competition were Jewish. They were chosen to compete because they were among the top architects of our time. However, I think it is important that there is communication and mutual admiration and respect between members of all faiths. As the architect of this church, some might say that I am, to some degree, a symbolic bridge between faiths.


I am a little older than I was last year, and my experience has shown me that there is always someone who feels differently. The true test is how people feel about being in the church, not how they react to me, not whether the entrance is revised, or whether “Richard Meier is a Jew”, but how it is received by those in the parish of Tor Tre Teste, and how it is enjoyed by visitors that will come to experience it. Anything that makes a statement is open to criticism.


Was there anything about creating this church that surprised you?


RM: I have worked in every country in Europe except Belgium and Italy, so nothing surprises me.


Your second project in Rome is for one of the city’s most important historic artifacts, the Ara Pacis. Could you tell us more about this?


RM: The Museum of the Ara Pacis is designed to house an ancient relic and sacrificial altar, dating to 9 BC. The museum complex will contain public exhibition areas and a small auditorium. It is located in the historic center of Rome on the bank of the Tiber River in close proximity to the Ponte Cavour. The start of construction was delayed when archaeological studies halted excavation. The design of the foundation was revised to accommodate the archaeological findings and construction is now back on track. The schedule for construction prepared by the Comune di Roma currently reflects completion in July 2004.


Jubilee Church Credits


Client: Opera Romana per la Preservazione delle fede e la Provvista di Nuove Chiese in Roma: Monsignor Luigi Moretti, Monsignor Gino Amicarelli, Monsignor Ernesto Mandara, Ignazio Breccia-Fratadocchi (lead contact)




Architect: Richard Meier & Partners

Design Team: Richard Meier, FAIA, John Eisler, Matteo Pericoli, Alfonso D’Onofrio

RM&P Rome: Nigel Ryan


Parish: Dio Padre Misericordioso, Don Gianfranco Corbino (Parish Priest)

Consultants to Client: Francesco Garofalo, Sharon Yoshie Miura, Antonio Maria Michetti, Pasquale D’Agostino, Caterina Mongiardini, Leonardo Peri


Structural and Building Systems Consulting Engineers: Arup; Guy Nordenson and Associates

Lighting Consultant: Fisher Marantz & Stone




General Director of Works: Ignazio Breccia Fratadocchi


Director of Works (Structure): M.S.C. Srl

Technical Sponsor: Italcementi Gruppo

Site Supervisor: Studio Tecnici Michetti

Building Systems Engineer: Studio Tecnico Dott. Ing. Luigi Dell’Aquila

Research and Materials Testing: Enel Hidro

Seismic Studies: Rita Pellegrine

Contractor: Lamaro Appalti Spa

Curtainwall and Skylight Contractor: Frener & Reifer

Curtainwall and Skylight Suppliers: Schüco International; Pilkington          

Stone (Travertine): Carlo Mariotti & Figli Srl

Lighting: Erco                                       

Stucco: MAPEI

Door Hardware: Fusital for Valli & Valli

Church Pews: Caloi Industria Srl            

Organ: Organaria Romana

Acoustics: Bose Spa; Harmonia

Precious Metals Designer: Bulgari


For nearly four decades, Richard Meier & Partners has designed dozens of cultural and civic buildings within the United States and abroad. The firm has created a brand of architecture that Louis Kahn once described as "the architecture of occasion." Such are buildings that encourage public gathering and contemplation, inspire creativity, give pleasure, and infuse visitors and occupants with a sense of event. Richard Meier & Partners projects have received numerous awards, and principal Richard Meier, FAIA, is the recipient of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture.


(click on pictures to enlarge)

(Andrea Jemolo)
Detail: Jubilee Church, Rome, Italy

(Andrea Jemolo)
The church adjoins the Tor Tre Teste housing complex.

(Andrea Jemolo)
Glass walls and skylights nestle within three concrete shells.

(Andrea Jemolo)
The concrete "sails" protect the north side of the church; the outer sail includes a floor-level clerestory.

(Andrea Jemolo)
Natural light sculpts the Jubilee Church interior.

(Richard Meier & Partners)
Site plan

(Richard Meier & Partners)

(Richard Meier)
Early sketch: elevations

(Richard Meier)
Early sketch: site plan

© 2003