May 1, 2012
Sowing the Seed
O Studio Architects’ concrete church makes a statement about religion in China.
O Studio Architects
Church of Seed
Luofu Mountain Village
These days, when people make pilgrimages to Mount Luofu, one of the seven most sacred Taoist sites in China, they are motivated not only by religion, but also by architecture. Despite formal echoes of Tadao Ando, Alvar Aalto, and Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, the Church of Seed, by the Hong Kong–based O Studio Architects, charts new territory. The principal architect, Fai Au, does not mind these multicultural references, but he insists that the Church of Seed is deeply rooted within its own heritage and context. “This is not a piece of architecture that purely celebrates its sculptural form,” he says, “but a building that respects the natural environment and local culture.”
The three exterior concrete walls of the church subtly resemble the curving form of a seed, a familiar metaphor from the Gospel. Diffuse light filters into the interior through a cross-shaped opening in the southeastern wall and between the series of large, graduated steps that compose the building’s roof. This terraced design results in a ceiling that ranges in height from about ten feet above the main entrance to about 40 feet over the altar, and it provides an observation deck for the surrounding mountainous landscape.
The abstract form and modern simplicity of the space are softened not only by the play of natural light, but also through masterful attention to textures and materials. One of the most important considerations in the church’s engineering was the use of local bamboo in constructing the formwork for the concrete walls. The resulting raw surface texture makes the space feel intimate and familiar. This decorative element is further echoed by the bamboo chairs used in the church’s interior. Though the original design specified custom-made benches, a limited budget and the need for flexible furniture arrangements impelled a new solution: “We discovered that some of the farmers near our site were able to make these chairs for about three dollars,” Au explains. “It was a win-win situation.”
That’s not the only way in which the project has turned trial into triumph. Freedom of worship remains a sensitive subject in China, so the church was proposed as a mixed-use “cultural building” that would function both as a place of Christian prayer and as a site for communal gathering. But despite keeping a low profile, the building’s reputation is blossoming at home and abroad. “The discussions happening on Chinese Web sites show that people are curious. They haven’t seen this kind of architecture before,” Au says. “They want to visit the building. I think that’s wonderful.”