The ceiling of Saint Gabriel’s Passionist Churchin Toronto hovers above the worship space like a billowing tent. As its horizontal line moves beyond the south-facing curtain wall of glass, it entices the worshipper’s gaze to move outdoors, where the canopy extension of the ceiling bends dramatically upward, revealing a naturalistic garden beyond and the sky above.
The visual and spatial qualities were well considered by the parish’s designer, Roberto Chiotti, who believes humanity’s connection with nature and the complex, life-giving dynamics revealed in the evolution of the universe are where architecture can engage transcendence. The worship space at St. Gabriel’s is a manifestation of this understanding. “Over billions of years, nature has figured it out and does it much better,” says Chiotti, the principal architect of Larkin Architect Limited. “There is so much to learn from the Earth. It is only through arrogance that we would choose to ignore this reality.”
Chiotti relied on the eco-theology of Passionist Father Thomas Berry to inform his design choices for St. Gabriel’s—indeed, his entire approach to architecture. Berry’s writings, Chiotti says, demand a re-examination of the basic premise that humans are all-important and everything else is to be exploited for our benefit. What is essential in our modern era, he says, is the need for a radical rethinking of how we relate to our world. “We need to embrace a new cosmology based upon the universe story, which will help us to relinquish our exploitive relationship with the Earth, and which will inspire us toward a relationship that is mutually enhancing,” Chiotti says, explaining Berry’s imperative.
Through studying the 14.5 billion years of the universe’s evolution, Chiotti believes architects can discover unlimited creative solutions about sustainability and the interdependence of systems. “As architects, we cannot help but be creative because of all the creativity that exists within the natural world around us,” he says. If that sounds too complicated, Chiotti tries to boil it down. “We’re trying to make buildings that promote the love of nature and—taking that big-picture perspective—designing as if the Earth was our client.”
Some would call this biomimicry, but Chiotti isn’t content with this notion. “I think ‘biomimicry’ is too limited of a term,” he says. “What is required is nothing less than ‘biophilia,’ a deep and intimate understanding, appreciation, and love for what the Earth provides for the human community and for us as designers.”
St. Gabriel’s, completed in 2006 and the first worship facility in Canada to achieve LEED Gold certification, is a catechesis of the principles of eco-theology. By clearly illuminating the beauty and value of the materials used in its construction, the facility promotes a consciousness around responsible use of non-renewable resources. The design incorporates passive solar energy and daylight and storm-water harvesting, facilitating a connection between interior and exterior worlds. “Sacred space is meant to reground us, recenter us, and reorient us—to give us a sense of meaning and purpose as we live out our lives,” Chiotti says.
The architect believes healthy environments that sustain and nurture all life are transcendent, regardless of their programmatic function. “Transcendent architecture isn’t just religious architecture,” he says. “Any building that connects us with the collective, the community—the interconnection of all things—and that transports us to a sense of something bigger than ourselves—the great mystery of existence—is transcendent.”
Chiotti says architects must begin to challenge the presuppositions of a worldview that has inextricably led us to the ecological challenges we face today. “Ultimately, the health of humanity is wholly dependent upon the health of the planet,” he says. “I feel compelled to make sure that whatever I design contributes to continuing differentiation and diversity in a way that honors and celebrates the building materials that the Earth provides us. Everything has value and subjectivity and therefore should be used in a sustainable way. Eco-theology has helped me come to appreciate that true sustainability can only be achieved when we acknowledge the sacred dimension of not just the human, but of all creation.”