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Investigating Sacred Space: Richard Meier’s Jubilee Church

A modern church also has an undeniable relationship to the centuries of church history preceding it. Ideas of continuation from past forms and the creation of new expressions require equal consideration and compromise. Despite endless possibilities for religious architectural expression, sacred space extends beyond any one style, floor plan, or proportion. Sacred space, like God, remains consistent through time, only appearing to change as new contexts adapt to its mysterious criteria. The actions of a worshipper and the meaning behind those actions become the base of a house of worship. A sacred space begins with the small events, the given meanings, and believed importance of a place. Larry Shiner uses the event of a sign to mark a sacred place. “Instead a sign may be given or even provoked, e.g., by turning an animal loose to wander and then accepting the spot where he is later found and sacrificed as the designated locus of village or altar.”[i] Beginning with an altar or one person kneeling to pray, the single phenomena performed purely and simply can develop into a house of worship. After considering orientation, ornamentation, iconography, symbols, height, and axes, the space evolves into an architecture that responds to the liturgy of the Catholic faith.

Problems arise out of the modern church’s relationship with history. How can a spatial criterion for contemporary churches be derived without replicating past forms or depending on the references? How does Meier configure space and light to evoke a sense of the sacred and accommodate ritual? These questions frame an investigation of the Jubilee church regarding the intentions of the project, Meier’s spatial interpretation of sacred space, and the perception of the project by others. This paper will explore the question of designing a modern sacred space through the Jubilee Church designed by Richard Meier.

How does the Jubilee Church embody the Catholic faith in a modern form? Meier begins with the basic elements of architecture. “The central ideas for creating a sacred space have to do with truth and authenticity,” Meier explained, ”a search for clarity, peace, transparency, a yearning for tranquility, a place to evoke otherworldliness in a way that is uplifting. And to express spirituality, the architect has to think of the original material of architecture, space and light.”[ii]

The trapezoidal lot borders Tor Tre Teste’s public park to the west, with residential structures on the northern and southern edges pinching the site into a triangular point on the east. Via Franceso Tovaglieri, the only road access to the church forms the southern boundary of the lot. Catholic churches traditionally orient laity towards the east. Meier chose to reverse the orientation of the Jubilee Church, aligning the entrance to the church to face the housing quarters and continuing the flow of traffic from Via Franceso Tovaglieri into the church.[iii] Orienting the church in the traditional manner, towards the east, would consequently force worshippers to confront the back of the church. The decision to reverse orientation neglects an alignment on a universal scale to respond to local circumstances.The sacred space then loses its connection to a larger understanding of the Catholic faith and loses a potential commonality with churches outside local context. The continued axis from the road seeks to connect the cluster of residences on the west edge with the public park on the east edge,

Figure 1. Main Sanctuary, Jubilee Church, Rome. Personal photograph by David Lierly.

with the church mediating the space between. Pedestrian approaches include the housing complex to the east, as well as the parking lot to the west. However, the six-foot tall wall surrounding the church lot hinders the complete effect of the connection.

In addition to buffering the park and the neighborhood, the sanctuary within the Jubilee Church mediates the gap between the liturgy space and the community center (Figure 1). The liturgy space, set between the three curved walls, includes a small day chapel (with seating for twenty-four) and the baptistery. The community center, organized around a four-story atrium, contains classrooms, a meeting room, living space for the priest, and a bell tower with five stacked bells. Between the two buildings, Meier situates the main sanctuary, clothed in transparent glass. The community center stands apart from the liturgical space without any visual connection.

Figure 2. Contrasting forms, Jubilee Church, Rome. Personal photograph by David Lierly.

The curvilinear walls of the worship center, described by Meier as ‘shells,’ contrast the straight community center walls without masking the separation of functions (Figure 2).

Within the liturgical space, Meier plants the essential elements needed for worship. Upon entering the church, individuals dip their hands into the stone baptismal font to cover themselves with holy water as they motion the sign of the cross. As believers find their place in a wooden pew, the parish priest begins to bring forth the mass articles from the sacristy to the altar. The priest will then perform the service and utilize the ambo to read the Eucharist. The space fulfills its functional role as a church by anticipating moments of prayer, baptism, confession, speaking, and singing, but the spiritual encounter varies with the character of the environment surrounding the rituals.

Meier’s fascination with a transparency creates an enclosure completed and affected by the exterior environment. The typical cruciform plan or hall church often features a dome, distinct separations between the chancel and sanctuary, expressive ornamentation, art narrating the Gospel, and stained glass filtering sunlight into a vertically-oriented space. The Jubilee Church, on the other hand, Meier’s interchangeable use of glass and concrete surfaces blurs the distinctions between indoor and outdoor environments (Figure 3).

Glass roof over chapel and sanctuary, Jubilee Church. Personal photograph by David Lierly.

The resultant worship space, flooded with light or shaded by cloud cover, exposes worshippers to the physical world, dependant on time and weather. The traditional cathedral delays the individual’s sense of time by masking the surrounding environments and replacing them instead with the world only inside the church. The Jubilee Church marries itself to the sky, vulnerable to constantly changing patterns of light and shadow. Unbounded by traditional closure, the Jubilee Church emphasizes the dynamism of light in place of visual hierarchy.[iv] The altar and crucifix become discreet pieces, unusually subtle next to the drama of the translucent roof.

The Jubilee Church, inaugurated by Pope John Paul II, is part of the 50 Churches for Rome 2000 project intended “to bring together the architectural translation of a renewed conception of the liturgy and the rehabilitation of depleted bands suburb of metropolitan areas.”[v] The Jubilee Church, coupled with Zaha Hadid’s museum and Renzo Piano’s concert hall, signifies a wave of contemporary architecture that attempts to revitalize the city of Rome.[vi] The tendency to preserve Rome’s ancient sites and prevent new construction reflects a culture frozen in time, adding only in the suburbs distant from landmarks.

After winning the Vatican’s competition for the Millennium Project’s fiftieth church design, Meier responded to the decreasing number of converts. “I think that architecture can play a role in bringing people to the church. Whether it will have any major effect, I couldn’t say. I think it will bring tourists, but to say it will bring converts, I don’t know.”[vii] Churches have the potential to house the divine presence of God. This sacred power of a worship place to facilitate an individual’s spiritual encounter is influenced by Meier’s vision for the church design. The twist of his task, however, lies in the Vatican’s clear intention to commission Richard Meier with his own distinct aesthetic for the Church of God the Merciful Father (La Chiesa Dio Padre Misericordioso), nicknamed the Jubilee Church. A Richard Meier church will surely bring tourists to the sacred place, not to worship but to take pictures. Confounded by the church’s unorthodox expression, visitors may question Meier’s design decisions after visiting Rome’s nine hundred-odd churches characterized by the Baroque, Renaissance, and Classicist periods.

For Christianity’s two thousandth anniversary the Vatican intentionally chose the Jubilee Church project to represent the relevance of Roman Catholicism in a contemporary language.[viii] Though Italy already has postwar religious architecture that deviates from orthodox forms, Meier’s rendition features a “Modern design from a Modern master.”[ix] If the building itself did not reflect the maker, upon entering the church an inscription on the front walls reads:

This structure is a testament to the

monumental work of men in the

service of spiritual aspirations

Richard Meier, Architect

The influence of social hierarchy apparent in this dedication further emphasizes the role of one specific person as opposed to humbling the sinful mankind. As an issue to overcome, this church carries too prominently the name of its famed designer.

The discussion here moves further from the topic of architectural ‘style’ and more towards the effects of Meier’s specific signature style. How does the overall whiteness of the church reflect its meaning? Are these choices specific to the Jubilee Church project or Richard Meier’s fascination? The questions come to rest on the fact that the designer of any building will always leave his or her impression, however subtle or bold, on the work. When the work must stand alone, after the architect has moved on, does the building give itself to the users or continue to bear the name of its maker?

Although in the earlier quote Meier noted that a new church would surely bring tourists, others, including Bishop Ernesto Mandara who heads the 50 Chiese Per Roma Duemille project, have entertained the notion that modern churches can strategically attract tourists and converts. “We turned to these big names for the same reason that when one has a sickness he goes to the best doctors,” said Bishop Mandara.”[x] The expectation for new church architecture to remedy empty pews caused the Vatican to invest into architecture to create new religious and social centers. The icons may bring more tourists than locals, but a steady flow of converts will fulfill the church’s role as an active place of worship, not as a museum housing artifacts as many of Rome’s historic churches became.

As a symbol of renewal in the Tor Tre Teste neighborhood, the Jubilee Church intends to bridge the gap between the residential clusters and the adjacent public park. The church is placed with the hope of becoming the social center of an otherwise disconnected and isolated housing quarter.[xi] This has significant effects on the purpose of the church. Instead of solely focusing on an individual’s relationship with God, the added community center broadens the church experience to accommodate the nonreligious community as well.

The project has implications for Rome, the Vatican, the Tor Tre Teste community, and, most importantly, the individuals who come to worship. The church is fundamentally a place for worship and the furtherance of the Roman Catholic faith. The place must suit the rituals of liturgy and facilitate a sacred experience. Meier says about worship: “When I think of a place of worship, I think of a place where one can sit and be reminded of all the things that are important outside our individual lives.”[xii] Sacred spaces have the potential to transform environments into other worlds, where the supernatural or divine can inhabit and overwhelm.[xiii] Meier describes the place of worship as a space for contemplation and connection to a realm outside the individual. The place of worship, then, is important as an individual activity but the church function as a gathering place for corporate worship.

Again the issue of social hierarchy resurfaces as clergymen and laymen divide into their proper places. The laymen will have their pews, chapels, and side aisles. The clergymen will operate behind the balustrade, at the altar, in the sacristy, in the confessional, and at the ambo. In recognition of the possible division, church history shows a move towards the participation of the body.[xiv] In the Jubilee Church specifically, openness towards the community is also reflected in an accessible sanctuary, where there is no rail separating the nave from the chancel (Figure 1). The architect of a sacred space needs to consider the union and separation between spaces and people, acknowledging the sanctuary as a place to mediate relationships. Mediation occurs between the outside world and the religious environment, the individual and the body, as well as the people and God.

The modern inclination to strip interiors of ornamentation and the traditional Stations of the Cross challenges the iconography common to Catholic churches.[xv] The Jubilee Church interior places more emphasis on materials than on liturgical pieces. The floor, altar, priest’s chair, and ambo unify a ground space in a subtle, pale travertine. The north face wall utilizes stone and vertically placed wooden slats to separate the community center from the sanctuary. Three curved walls ranging from eighty-eight to fifty-seven feet tall retain a brilliant white color from titanium dioxide in the concrete. The church pews, uniquely made of wood, stand out against the pale interior. A single crucifix, though dark against the white sacristy, remains balanced with its small size.

As an interpretation of sacred space, the Jubilee Church accommodates the activities of worship but lacks a certain quality of awe and wonder found in many of Rome’s older churches. The hush that falls on an individual when he or she enters those old churches transforms the atmosphere from secular to spiritual. A powerful sacred space distinguishes itself from the secular world, though it may connect and relate to outside forces, the space envelops worshippers in another world. The quality of reverence and silence forms a mystery about the house of worship. The Jubilee Church lacks the mysterious and awe-inspiring quality of its predecessors.

In addition, the church appears isolated and foreign in the Tor Tre Teste neighborhood. How did the essence of Rome influence the Jubilee Church’s great shells and transparent roof? The project has beauty and merit as modern religious architecture but the Jubilee Church lacks the influence of Rome and its immediate context. The church exercises little sensitivity to the Tor Tre Teste neighborhood. Instead of a subtle and respectful chapel awaiting appropriation and use by the locals, the project reflects the Vatican’s aim to create an impressive icon needed “to bring the city back to life.”[xvi] Though effort was made to connect the housing complex with the park, little else reflects the identity of Rome or local residents.

Critics of Richard Meier’s work in Rome include Vittorio Sgarbi, Rome’s Under Secretary of Culture in 2001. Sgarbi favored the 1938 Ara Pacis building and argued strongly against Meier’s design. “’I don’t see the Ara Pacis; I just see Richard Meier,” he said.[xvii] Similarities between the Ara Pacis museum, the Getty Center, and the Jubilee Church raise doubts concerning the relevance of the church to a specifically Roman context.

Regardless of the question of identity, however, the church must be, at its core, a sacred house of worship. Without settling on the issue of form or style, what validates a church as a sacred space? Critics who jump too hastily in opposition of Meier’s work on the Jubilee Church may have failed to question the centuries of built churches. The perception of Meier’s ownership and stamp on the building must be overcome in order to qualify a genuine spiritual encounter. The validity of the Jubilee Church as sacred space matters, at its essence, for ritual and the meaning applied to that ritual by the worshipper. Though the modern interpretation provides a radically different church environment, the spiritual encounter overcomes the architecture and keeps its potential to overwhelm the worshipper who has only God in mind. As a space set apart specifically for worship, with the intention of orienting an individual to God and anticipating moments of worship, the church is intrinsically sacred. The church’s status as a holy place depends on how the environment transforms space into another world and affects the people. The reverence given to a sacred space also qualifies it as distinct and holy.

The mystery of Meier’s white shells and glass surfaces is now at the mercy of interpretation. The intentions of the project stand helpless to the consequences of public reception. In a review of the Jubilee Church, the parish priest offers his interpretation of the curvilinear forms. “They remind him of an oyster, with the congregation as the pearl, or they could symbolize enormous sails, pulling the Roman Catholic Church into the future.”[xviii] Whatever meanings are applied to the church affect its performance as a sacred space. To this priest, the church’s foremost leader, the space is symbolic of a new future. With the faith of the few, a sacred space can thrive aided by, or despite, its architectural enclosure.

Larry E. Shiner, “Sacred Space, Profane Space, Human Space,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 40.4 (1972) 425-436.

See Riding.

For more information on the competition and the project intentions see Falzetti, 30-95.

Falzetti, 30-96.

These are my own interpretations in English from the Italian version. Antonella Falzetti, La Chiesa Dio Padre Misericordioso di Richard Meier (Roma: Clear, 2004), 11.

Jason Horowitz, “An Ancient City Becomes More Receptive to Modern Architecture,” New York Times, 13 April 2005.

Jason Horowitz, “Awe (and Maybe Acolytes) From Bold Architecture,” New York Times, 19 August 2004.

Kilde writes in depth about the power of sacred space. Jeanne Kilde, Sacred Power, Sacred Space: An Introduction to Christian Architecture and Worship, (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), 175-237.

Peter Popham, “Richard Meier Achieves a Baroque Sense of Space and Lightweight Concrete Construction in the Jubilee Church, in Rome, Italy,” Architectural Record 192, no.2 (2004): 100-107.

Horowitz, “An Ancient City Becomes More Receptive to Modern Architecture.”

Falzetti, 30.

Alan Riding, “The Vatican’s Modernist Moment; a Church Designed by Richard Meier is Consecrated in Rome,” New York Times, 30 October 2003.

Kilde, 4.

Kilde, 131-133.

Kilde, 175-212.

Horowitz, “An Ancient City Becomes More Receptive to Modern Architecture.”

Alessandra Stanley, “Rome Journal; Colorful Characters Lurk Around Monuments,” New York Times, 29 June 2001.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, “Inhabiting a Piece of Art: It’s Not Always So Pretty; [Review],” New York Times, 30 January 2010.


Alexander, John. “Shaping Sacred Space in the Sixteenth Century: Design Criteria for the

Collegio Borromeo’s Chapel.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 63,

no.2 (2004): 164-179.

Bernstein, Fred. “Religion Journal; Critic Takes Catholicism to Task for Architecture.”

New York Times, September 7, 2002.

“Church Attacks Pollution.” Current Science, 16 March 2007.

Falzetti, Antonella. La Chiesa Dio Padre Misericordioso di Richard Meier. Roma: Clear,


Horowitz, Jason. “An Ancient City Becomes More Receptive to Modern Architecture.”

New York Times, April 13, 2005.

Horowitz, Jason. “Awe (and Maybe Acolytes) From Bold Architecture,” New York

Times, August 19, 2004.

Kilde, Jeanne. Sacred Power, Sacred Space: An Introduction to Christian Architecture

and Worship. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008.

Kingsbury, Alex. “The Changing House of Worship.” U.S. News & World Report 143,

no.19 (2007): 64-68.

“Meier’s Jubilee Church Debuts in Rome.” Art in America 91, no.12 (2003): 126.

Muschamp, Herbert. “Art/Architecture: The Year in Review; Keeping Up With the

Urgency of Faith.” New York Times, December 29, 2002.

Ouroussoff, Nicolai. “Inhabiting a Piece of Art: It’s Not Always So Pretty; [Review].”

New York Times, January 30, 2010.

Popham, Peter. “Richard Meier Achieves a Baroque Sense of Space and Lightweight

Concrete Construction in the Jubilee Church, in Rome, Italy.” Architectural Record

192, no.2 (2004): 100-107.

Richard Meier & Partners Architects LLP. “Jubilee Church.”



Riding, Alan. “The Vatican’s Modernist Moment; a Church Designed by Richard Meier

is Consecrated in Rome.” New York Times, October 30, 2003.

Shiner, Larry E. “Sacred Space, Profane Space, Human Space.” Journal of the American

Academy of Religion 40, no.4 (1972) 425-436.

Stanley, Alessandra. “Rome Journal; Colorful Characters Lurk Around Monuments.”

New York Times, June 29, 2001.