words Douglas Murphy
images Sergio Pirrone
Catholics and Modernists might make strange bedfellows, but the last century saw the Roman church commission some of the most brilliant modernist buildings: Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, for example. The Capilla del Retiro by Undurraga Deves continues that tradition. It is a new chapel set in the grounds of a sanctuary dedicated to Saint Teresa of the Andes, Chile’s first saint. Every year hundreds of thousands of people come
to venerate St Teresa; many will pray in this chapel.
“Our projects emerge from their places,” says Christian Undurraga, principal of Undurraga Deves, and he means it quite literally. Located in a spectacular valley at the foothills of the Andes, the plain concrete beams that make up the visible cross-shaped part of the building show no human features; the chapel itself is approached by a ramp that leads down under the ground. Once inside the buried chapel – the interior of which is beautifully clad in recycled railway sleepers – the size of the beams mean that the interior walls appear to float above the ground. This effect is heightened by the large light gap at the edges of the ceiling – it too appears to float.
With all this structural trickery – or, in modernist terms, dishonesty – you might think there’s a contradiction when Undurraga claims that “the expression of the structures and the materials have to be clear and transparent”. But here form still follows function: it’s just that the function is to symbolise the ineffable.