Pekka Pitkänen: the Chapel of the Holy Cross, Turku, 1967


2013 Pekka Pitkänen«In 1963, the Finnish architect Pekka Pitkänen (Turku, 1927) was the winner of, with his proposal “triadi” [triad], the competition to build the Chapel of the Holy Cross in the cemetery of Turku (Finland). The commission makes up part of the extension towards the south of the cemetery, which at the time only had the Chapel of the Resurrection, built by Erik Bryggman (1891-1955) between 1938 and 1941. Pitkänen decides to build the new construction on the limit between the extension and the old cemetery, so that it also functions as a kind of threshold devoted to mourning on the way to the cemetery.

The programme consists of three chapels, with a capacity for 160, 50 and 12 people respectively that should hold the liturgical acts previous to burial or incineration. In addition, the building should house a sacristy, a room for funeral wreaths, another for the delivering of the ashes and a series of technical rooms destined to the preparation and incineration of the body.

The construction takes place between 1965 and 1967 and in it, Pitkänen uses almost exclusively reinforced concrete, a material that judging by the abundance with which it appears in his work could be said is his symbol of identity as well as other contemporary Finnish architects. Very significant is the case of Aarno Ruusuvuori (1925-92, who like Pitkänen, tried to ignore the influence of aaltian free form through logical construction, of mathematical exactitude- two extremes, perhaps equally unachievable-. In fact, one should not underestimate the influence it had on Pitkänen with the churches already built by Ruusuvuori using concrete in all its variants (Hyvinkaa, 1958-61; Huutomiemi, 1961-64; and Tapiola, 1963-65, or that erected by Viljo Revell (1910- 1964) in Vatiala (1958-61).

In 1967, as an introduction to the presentation of some of his works in the Arkkitehti journal, Pitkänen published a short essay titled “Betoniarkkitehtuurista” (architecture in concrete), where he puts forward his ideology on the material which he used to build the then chapel of Turku. In the text, Pitkänen specifically stresses two issues: the correspondence between the form and the material – underlining then the enormous freedom that, in this way, the concrete gives to the architect-; and the decisive function of formwork, whose mark, legible in the finished work, entails a host of meanings that surpass its mere technological aspects. In his opinion, the mould represents, first, the discipline of the surface, otherwise lacking in effective articulation; later, it manifests a double dependency of the conformed material and what it conforms to; and finally, reveals the metric precision of the work. Pitkänen illustrates his text with photographs of emblematic buildings such as the Unité of Marsella (1946-52) by Le Corbusier or the Salk Institute (1959-65) by Louis I. Kahn.

Built also in concrete, the Chapel of the Holy Cross could well be due to a skilled architect in the art of sternotomy. The relevance given to the formwork in “Betoniarkkitehtuurista” is seen in this work for its concern with the surface articulation of the constructive elements as well as its dimensional coordination. But far from the freedom of form that Pitkänen applauds in his article, the building of Turku is presented as a meditated exercise in constructive syntax in which the volumes, walls, and slabs of concrete blend without losing its mutual independence. And so, the main chapel emerges as an inscrutable mass above a natural composition of horizontal and vertical planes that extend towards the surrounding landscape. Walls shaped by panels of prefabricated concrete identical to the slabs of paving bonded by way of ashlars – on a simple skirting board formed in situ – it extends beyond the strict limits of the built volume, enclosing laterally an exterior space appertaining to each of the chapels and pointing unequivocally to building’s main access.

Two powerful horizontal lines – the first, clearly visible in the main façade; the second, on a lower level, favours the natural slope of the land- cover the secondary chapels avoiding the encounter with the walls through a narrow perimeter fissure that illuminates the interior.

In this way, the Pitkänen project appears to consist of a canonical exercise in composition that, if removed from the mere aesthetic speculation, is but the symbolism detached from the ritual covering of each line of the floor, each reflection if its contained form in a significant way. Where do they lead, if not, the walls that are lost in the distance? Perhaps its expressive strength does not reside so much in the clever slipping as in the inexorable destiny that they point to.

The Chapel of the Holy Cross is a building with one entrance and many exits; one enters accompanied but leaves definitely alone. Indeed, the sequence of approximation begins long before; when passing the flower kiosk, a winding path that crosses a gentle slope of natural ground clear of vegetation. Then, the construction appears as a back drop and beyond, the bell tower of the Chapel of the Resurrection from the depths of the forest.

Pitkänen’s building is located on the corner of a meadow, behind a portico access that initiates a dialogue with the crossed raised in the distance enshrined in a tree-covered background. The cross that gives name to the chapel is also believed to be ambushed, discovered only from the furthest point of the meadow. Not in vane, in this along with many other churches built in Nordic countries, nature is identified as a deity according to pantheist belief which will also have an effect on the interior space.

The portico separates from the Chapel, leaving a margin, while quite generous, recalls those that Sigurn Lewerentz (1885-1975) planned in the chapel of the resurrection (1922-25) and Erik Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940), or even Bryggman in the neighbouring chapel in the cemetery of Turku. This is the tradition of Pitkänen: despite the obvious differences in style, these buildings share a similar mechanism of approximation to that of the portico – hardly separated from the main building -, the cross and the path.

But where the influence of Bryggman is felt in a more obvious way, is in the interior of the chapel, where nature bursts in through a front window that bathes the catafalque laterally in light. A door points to, in all cases, to the path that this could follow once the ceremony has ended: the funeral in the forest. Significantly, as Ismael García Ríos points out with respect to the chapel by Bryggman, this door is not an entrance but an exit. The alternative path for the coffin consists in disappearing underground where the crematory is located. The lateral opening of the interior space is a characteristic common in the Finnish churches and which the chapel of the resurrection was an important reference. Paloma Gil, whose vital contribution would consist in clouding the idea of the traditional nave, explains: “What Bryggman does with the glazed panels is annul the existence of an opaque limit in the side nave and provoke a symbolic reading through the presence of the exterior in the interior: the forest that is seen from the mourning place represents the hope in the resurrection”.

The truth is that Pitkänen clarifies this solution by compensating said opening – to the west, whereby enacting the drama- through the narrow area of the opposite face, where a bench receives the morning sunlight of an extended skylight; similar to this, another, oriented to the north, bathes in diffused light the background of the main chapel behind the overhead loft destined for the choir. Finally, two small skylights (one of them deliberately slanted towards the south-east) point respectively to the position of the catafalque and the altar. Under the revealed light by this unknown hidden source, the bereaved contemplate through transparency a land (a holy field) close to its fragile existence, more akin to their limited understanding of the world.»

“Pekka Pitkänen: Capilla de la Santa Cruz, Turku, 1967 / Pekka Pitkänen: the Chapel of the Holy Cross, Turku, 1967,” with Débora Domingo Calabuig. En Blanco 11 (2013): 37-39.

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