Church of St. Mary of the Angels

Church of St Mary of the Angels, Singapore, WOHA
Construction year: 2003
Address: 5 Bukit Batok East Ave 2 | SINGAPORE | Singapore | Visit Website
Latitude/Longitude: 1.34726, 103.759

The parish of St. Mary of the Angels, run by the Franciscan Friars, had grown from 30 people in the 1950s to a parish of 5000 people today. The large parish could not be adequately served by the existing buildings, which had been incrementally added-to over the years. The old buildings, built on a hill in a rubber plantation were now walled in by high-rise public housing.

A masterplan was prepared for the property with the following objectives – to renovate the existing Franciscan Friary, to provide a new monastery for the Poor Clares nuns, to provide a church with a seating capacity of 1200, to connect to the existing Parish Centre and to provide a columbarium and wake rooms. In addition to these functional areas, the in-between areas were seen to be of equal importance – a space for the community to gather, to create places for liturgical processions and festivals as well as private prayer and devotion.

Central to the design was the idea of building a community. A diagram was developed where the existing buildings and new buildings would all connect to a central community space that would form the heart of the complex. The other sub-committees all relate to this central space, creating activity and visibility for all the various parts. The flipping of the focus from outward-looking to inward-looking was also a strategy that reflected the changing site character from a hilltop to a “valley” created by the surrounding high-rise developments. The hilly site created various levels within the development that were linked by covered walkways and ramped outdoor spaces, creating many opportunities for processions and celebrations.

The design was also inspired by the forms of the Franciscan Friar’s head church St Francis of Assisi in Italy, where a large lawn, colonnades and ramped entrances flow out from the main cathedral. Another aspect of the church, its connection to nature and the outside, was suggested by the life of St. Francis, who spread his message out in the community rather than inside the confines of the churches.

As a tropical, contemporary Catholic church several strategies influenced the form:

The Catholic Church initiated reforms to the worship spaces in a document known as “Vatican II”, which directed new churches to re-capture the qualities of the early Christian churches. These were characterised by being “in-the-round” a space where the whole community participated in the liturgy, rather than the later churches where rituals were performed as if on a stage, and the parish were separated both physically and symbolically by the raised sanctuary, screens and physical distance. The church was designed with seating on 3 sides and the ceremonial space in the centre so that no seat was too far from the sanctuary, and the location of the baptism font, the altar and the lectern were developed with the priests to ensure their symbolism and function were correct.

The spaces that in colder climates are inside traditional buildings were here developed as semi-outdoor spaces. The narthex, or traditional entrance hall, instead becomes the semi-covered central space, sheltered by a 10m-cantilevered roof. Rather than all the elements being in a single building, this central space allowed various elements – the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, the work sacristy, vesting sacristy and restrooms to be placed in separate buildings linked by covered walkways.

The central Garden of World Peace is the roof of the columbarium, which was developed as light, airy crypts that connect the earth and the sky through the device of the reflection pools, which also serve as devotional aids through their meditative quality. The garden, with its columns of tree trunks and fine canopy, slopes down to the central area, which is focussed around the Easter Flame reflection pool. This arrangement is designed to permit it to function as an outside church for the celebrations at Easter, where the entire community of 5000 can gather together, possible now for the first time for many years.

The architectural expression was developed as a robust set of 3 architectural languages that would link the old and the new, and were appropriate to the climate and the budget. One set of architectural expression was developed for the link way, as a rhythmic open sided concrete colonnade. A second expression was developed from the existing cellular Friary building, of regular white cubic forms with perforated aluminium sun screening and overhangs. This was applied to all the building elements with regular, cellular accommodation. A third expression of looser, linking forms was developed as planar, rough-textured brown walls that fold and intersect, inspired by the brown rough fabric of the Franciscan robes. Together these three expressions allowed a rich variety of responses to the complex requirements of the various components, the hilly site and the existing buildings.

The interiors took the folding planar architectural language as a base, and were developed in 3 materials – blackened steel, solid oak and plywood. Together these allowed a rich and complex set of responses, with the plywood and steel used in the more economical areas, and solid oak highlighting the areas of importance. A complete set of loose and built-in furniture were developed for the Friary and Monastery, using simple, poor materials – plywood and steel plate – but elevating these through design as the Friars and Nuns elevate their lives of poverty and chastity through their actions.

The church, since its opening, has already become part of the life of the community, and the opportunities offered by its varied spaces are already being enthusiastically explored.

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