A watchman on the lake

2017-07-01 L’Osservatore Romano

“So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me” (Ezek 33:7).

There is a watchman at the heart of the American continent, on Lake Coatepeque, a marvellous mirror of uncontaminated water that lies on the eastern slope of the Santa Ana Volcano, an hour’s drive from San Salvador.

It is the Cardedu Chapel, built in 2012 and which in an extremely short time has become a true architectural icon. Its structure is very simple: a bare trapezoid of cement, open at the entrance and the exit, which frames the surrounding landscape, englobing it in itself. The effect is that of a gentle funnel wide open to the water. The chapel has been rebaptized “church-frame”: what makes it unique is this total absence of an inside and an outside. The lake, the mountains and the trees blend with the church, like the meteorological conditions and the time of day.

 The Cardedeu Chapel on Lake Coatepeque (El Salvador)

“We wanted to draw all attention to the lake, removing any element that might in some way divert the visitor from it, explained Eva Hinds, the architect who designed the chapel and the surrounding buildings which make up the Cardedeu complex. After obtaining a degree in Bogota and spending several years in Toronto, Hinds arrived in San Salvador where, with Anita Olivares de Guerrero, she found the Emc Arquitectura Studio. In charge of a young staff of both women and men, these women architects deny that any specifically female feature exists in architecture, but through their personal experience they are convinced that the fact that they are mothers is not unimportant. It is not only because of all that this means, inevitably, in terms of balance and the use of time: “Being mothers has changed us as people, making us more sensitive to all that surrounds our families. And in our work the spaces that we create end up having a far more personal feeling depending on the project that we are working on”.

Over the years Emc Arquitectura has won both prizes and recognition so that it has become a well-known studio at an international level. Whether they are designing a church, a private villa, a commercial or residential complex, the primary feature of the activity of Eva’s and Anita’s team is that they work with the surrounding nature. This does not mean only respecting it but – where possible – englobing it and in any case always leaving it the place of honour.

This is exactly the case of the Cardedeu complex (which in addition to the chapel includes a hotel, a restaurant and various places for meetings) designed and built with a continuous play of floors and slopes, to exalt open space in a place which is so privileged, first and foremost because of its spectacular views.

The use of local materials – wood from a neighbouring farm and stones from a nearby quarry – binds the project to the material character of the area, Eva Hinds explained to us. At the same time, however, “We wanted to introduce foreign materials such as concrete, cement and steel, which have enabled us to create a structure which can generate the incredible feeling of being afloat among the trees. Or even of flying over the lake”.

Every detail of the Cardedeu Chapel has been thought out to encourage this dialogue with the surrounding nature, for example the ventilation system. The choice of making the bottom of the chapel broader than the side containing the entrance was also dictated by the fact that in this way air can circulate inside it constantly, making the tropical climate more bearable for the faithful and tourists. The buffer of air which separates the two layers of concrete on which the chapel stands does the rest.

In its absolute coherence the interior of Cardedeu Chapel is very simple too. The furnishings – the altar, the lectern and the rows of pews – are reduced to the essential: and if everything leads to the lake, this happens through a great iron cross.

Thus the overall result is a place of prayer whose face changes several times in the course of the same day. Thus the light of dawn makes it a welcoming companion for the recitation of Lauds and the fading of the day, with its unmistakable blue moment, transforms it into a co-protagonist of the recitation of Vespers.

The Chapel accompanies nature, framing a prayer which wants no barriers between what is built by man and what is offered by nature. Because the watchman’s role is this: listening to God’s word and transmitting it to the world in an incredible and ceaseless dynamism. 

Giulia Galeotti