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Serene space.

This womb-like private chapel in a Maltese farmhouse is suffused with a simple yet intensely moving serenity.

Richard England is best known for his church at Manikata village in Malta, designed in 1963 and completed a decade later. The church, with its curved walls inspired equally by local building forms and the sculpted shapes of the chapel at Ronchamp, is widely recognised as a masterpiece of post-war Modern regionalism. Over the same period and into the late '70s, England produced a series of hotels and other designs which, while serving more material concerns, also share the same reverence for the stark island landscape and Mediterranean light, mediating between heaven and earth, tradition and Modernity.

Early in the '80s, however, England's work took a different turn - some might say for the worse - in favour of a postmodern delight in 'plundering the history books'. While always respectful of the natural and built context, these later, more mannered works often went, like much of Post-Modern architecture, well over the top in exploring the new historical and artistic license. Mediterranean cultural references that were once only indirectly hinted at were now frequently laid on with relish, with every work bearing its clutch of pediments and other explicit 'signs' of pedigree.

It therefore comes as a welcome surprise to step into the tiny meditation chapel built into a cave at Ir-Razzet Ta' Sanorina residence, near the village of Mgarr, and discover a very different kind of work from the same designer - small in volume, but large in spirit.

Part of an eighteenth-century farmhouse England converted in 1989 for his daughter Sanorina and her new family, the cave itself is man-made, and was originally hewn out of the limestone face of the hill against which the farmhouse nestles, to provide a natural cold store. Partly concealed behind a screen wall, the entrance to this most private of family chapels is accessed from within the main courtyard of the house, which is itself treated as a larger private sanctuary, open to the Mediterranean sky but otherwise closed off from the outside world.

Carefully controlled as it is, the transition from one space to the other nevertheless comes as something of a shock. The treatment of the courtyard, with its colourful collage of enclosed and open stairways and arcaded screen walls, is typical of England's Post-Modern works, complete with knowing references to de Chirico and Magritte. Abstract though some of these elements may be in themselves, the total impression is one of rampant formalism. The cave chapel, however, is all about restraint and owes more to Luis Barragan's brand of modern minimalism than to postmodern excess.

The contrast between exterior and interior designs could not be stronger. The partial blindness induced by the effect of stepping straight from the intense sunlight of the courtyard into the chapel (which, aside from the flickering glow of three candles, derives its reflected light entirely from the exterior), heightens the sense of transition into another, calmer world. What swims slowly into view is a simple space bounded by four vertical coloured planes of equal height, each smoothly rendered surface set slightly inward from the uneven, chiselled stone walls of the cave. A fifth plane, of lower height, joins the chapel with an adjoining space of equal size carved out of the same rock, which serves as an anteroom. Gaps between the planes allow entry into the chapel and adjoining space, and access down to another cave at a lower level via a rocky stairway. A 'prayer-mat' of polished limestone forms a sixth, horizontal plane, and floats in a moat of rough stone chippings. A single, precision-carved cube of solid stone stands in one corner of the polished floor, forming the altar. The only other features are a small wooden cross hanging on the wall plane opposite the main entrance, and a group of three crimson cylinders, each supporting a single candle.

Like everything else in this modest but telling exercise, the symbolism is discreet, and all the more effective for being so. The moat of stone chippings, for example, separates the stone prayer mat from the surrounding elements and access-ways and symbolises the difficult transition from the outer, profane space of the exterior, to the sacred space of the interior. The bare, or empty cross, stresses the resurrection of Christ rather than His suffering and death, while the rich, ecclesiastical colours of the vertical planes and candle holders reflect traditional church custom in Malta. What is most clearly communicated is the sense of monastic serenity that all of these elements, in their womb-like, primitive setting, combine to induce in the visitor, creating a rare refuge of silence from the stressful world outside, equally healing to both secular and religious consciousness.
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Title Annotation:Architecture and Religion; meditation chapel in Malta
Author:Abel, Chris
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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