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Iglesia de Iesu

San Sebastián, Spain
Opening that allows light to enter
1 of 21
Opening that allows light to enter
Pedro Pegenaute

In an essay titled ‘Architecture as a vehicle for religious experience,’ Moneo described the paradigm shift from the medieval concept of a church as the House of God, to the Renaissance emphasis on the individual and the private realm—a change that has accelerated in recent decades. ‘The architect, facing the challenge of building a church or temple, cannot rely on a shared vision, but instead must risk offering his or her own version of sacred space,’ he wrote.

In Donostia, he took some cues from the rector of the parish, Jesus Maria Zabaleta. ‘He and his fellow priests wanted a church that provided the faithful with a space that allowed them to express their religious feelings without interference,’ the architect recalled. ‘The purer the form and the less conventional iconography, the better. I very much wanted to serve their wishes.’

Architecture

The lofty church is rotated ten degrees to the hollow rectangle of the parish centre, and projects into the park. Concrete blocks, faced inside and out with a white cement mortar that resists airborne pollutants, rise from a stone-clad base along the street wall. To the east, a cut-out cross in the roof parapet identifies the church. Oak grilles enclose the entry concourse that runs parallel to the street and an opening that lights it, projecting a grid of sun and shade. Beyond the landscaped patio are a meeting room, parish offices, and upper level apartments.

This low-key approach heightens the drama of the worship space: an irregular Greek cross, defined by the angled walls of the baptistery, sacristy, and chapels that occupy four corners of the square. Three blocks of pews and the deep sanctuary are bathed in natural light from the same roof lanterns that light the meditation chapel above the sacristy and the other three corner chapels. The light defines the central cross and articulates the spaces between open and enclosed volumes.

Radical shifts of height give each chapel a distinct character: one ascends 23 meters above the low-ceilinged sacristy; the others rise 7, 11 and 27 meters above the black basalt floor. An organ gallery offers another perspective on a volume that was inspired by the sharply-etched blocks of Eduardo Chillida, an admired sculptor who spent most of his life in Donostia.

Miguel Salaberria