Architect: Trahan Architects, Baton Rouge, LA
Engineer: Schrenk & Peterson Consulting Engineers, New Orleans, LA
General Contractor: Quality Design and Construction, Inc., Gonzales, LA
Concrete Contractor: Quality Design and Construction, Inc., Gonzales, LA
Reinforcing Bar Fabricator: Loftland Company (CMC Steel Group)
Blast Design: Weidlinger Associates
Total Project Cost: $2.4 million
Total Project Size: 17,076 sq ft
Pre-existing conditions at the Holy Rosary Church site consisted of a loose collection of historic vernacular church buildings and interim educational facilities serving a rural parish in southern Louisiana. The modest assemblage of buildings lacked collective presence and were dominated by expanses of landscape in all directions. Design objectives responded to these circumstances and reflected the thriving church community’s desire to have an elevated sense of place and spiritual purpose within the powerful natural setting.
The new campus master plan unifies all parish functions through a coherent organizational system, while drawing a clear distinction between the program’s sacred and secular programs. Secular components of the campus take the form of linear “edge” pavilions composed to frame a courtyard, or sacred precinct, where the Oratory is found. Moving in a clockwise direction, the promenade around the interior lawn leads ultimately to the Oratory. In the opposite direction, the path offers the complementary experience of moving by degrees from the intensely spiritual center back into the community.
The architectural character of the composition was the product of an honest exploration of form, function, natural light and materials. The resulting visual understatement was considered to create a quietness, focusing attention away from the architecture and toward the purpose of the church and a relationship with its setting.
SITE-CAST REINFORCED CONCRETE
Site-cast reinforced concrete provided a strong image and was carefully shaped and detailed to transcend its industrial stereotype. Moreover, a deliberate effort to avoid decorative symbols or ornament overtly signaling status, directs attention to material treatment. In the context of the striking simplicity, material is promoted to a poetic and symbolic level.
Cast-in-place concrete was chosen for the outer most wall of the complex to give weight to the act of initiating edge. While two-dimensional when approached from the exterior, these boundary markers reveal a space-defining role as the enclosing perimeter wall generating a sense of stability and shelter in the academic and administrative pavilions. The special edge making function of this plane is asserted on the interior by a spatial separation of ceiling/roof plane, allowing a wash of natural illumination to add warmth to the wall while making its presence more vivid.
Concrete application at the Oratory is distinct from the edge pavilions. Monolithic and massiveness enhance purity of object and the creation of a distinctly abstract interior volume expressive of the mystery represented in sacred ceremony.
The qualities of glass, specifically the transparency, clarity and fragility of plate glass and the obscured luminosity and textural properties of cast glass are used in sculptural tension with the density, mass and opacity of concrete.
SPECIAL DESIGN FEATURES
ORATORY. In direct contrast with the smooth plywood formed pavilion walls, the chapel’s abstractness is reinforced by spare surfaces, uninterrupted by the patterning of tie holes identified with conventional concrete and given character by the subtle texture of narrow board formwork meant to create an inverse association with the wood lap siding of the existing historic church.
Design of the Oratory interior fulfills the desire to create a pure sacred space. An internal twenty-foot cube is nested within the larger exterior cube. With the intention of evoking a strong sense of mystery, all six sides are treated equally. Rotation of the chapel exterior is accompanied by a reciprocal rotation of the sacred chamber. The second rotation acting to realign sacred space with the main campus signifying a union of spiritual and secular lives.
To satisfy a desire for definition, internal apertures draw natural light into the Oratory without revealing light source or context beyond. Light falls through a variety of cavities cast into the varying wall thickness produced by the offsetting rotation of cubes. Openings near the ceiling produce brilliant light while openings near the floor produce soft obscure light.
CANOPY. The canopy shades glazed walls and reinforces directional movement around the courtyard. Cantilevered in two directions from a procession of columns, the canopy appears light and floating, in direct sculptural tension with its materiality and the massiveness of adjacent buildings.
The resulting void between pavilions and Oratory create an outdoor room appropriate for large communal gatherings, smaller gatherings or private meditation near the chapel. Seating is facilitated by gently depressing the courtyard lawn to induce a slight bowl shape. Across this depression floats a ramp leading to the chapel portal and marking the exchange of material and spiritual worlds.
ORATORY ENTRY. The splayed walls of the Oratory portal mark passage from the expanse of the courtyard to the intimate Oratory chamber. Variation in opening dimension from exterior to interior is scaled proportionally to the outer and inner cubes. Consequently, a sequence of compression and release is created that is experienced differently when moving into and out of the chapel. The resulting spatial shift parallels a personal and spiritual transformation. The door is assembled from three stacked cast-glass panels supported by narrow stainless steel rails along the top and bottom edges. Lens shaped in plan, the panels vary in dimension across their width, narrowest at its edge and widest at its center. The parabolic shape gathers and refracts light, glowing brightly at its edges and producing a soft luminosity at its middle.
In the process of pouring liquefied glass onto cooling layers, a texture of ripples and swirls was formed creating continuity between the appearance of the glass and concrete surfaces. Together, shape and texture disrupt the view leaving only the obscured play of light, shadow, color and movement appropriate to the metaphysical experience of the inner chamber.
Door operation is facilitated by a small stainless steel lined recess scooped from the wall of the threshold allowing ones hand to grasp the door’s narrow glass edge, rotating the door open on an offset concealed pivot. Reduction in door framing and hardware focuses attention back to the purity of making entry opening in the Oratory’s concrete walls.
A relationship between architect and contractor was fostered in the following ways:
- Pre-construction meetings were held to establish the standards of workmanship and to develop dialogue about ways to achieve the desired results. In these meetings, contractors were introduced to examples of world-class architectural concrete and the team reviewed the significance of the concrete mix and formwork.
- On-site mock-ups for all conditions were executed to test methods and establish a physical reference for materials and workmanship.
- Monthly meetings were held to sustain a focus on construction quality, timely progress and to respond effectively to critical construction events.
To create the irregular shaped cavities of the Oratory apertures, void geometry was digitally modeled and then milled from high-density foam using digitally controlled milling machines. Each of the foam molds was wrapped with laminate to withstand the forces of concrete placement and produce the desired smooth semi-reflective finish. Eliminating internal form ties through the use of an externally braced cantilevered forming system made space available within the primary formwork for anchoring the foam forms.
Holy Rosary Church exceeded the expectations of all participants. International honors, exhibitions and worldwide publishing of the design have come from architectural, cultural and ecumenical organizations.
The collaborative exchange fostered from this relationship made it possible to achieve extremely high levels of concrete workmanship and produced distinctive custom resolutions to challenging constructions conditions.