New Traditional Church Architecture in Spain

The Diocese of Alcalá de Henares, just outside of Madrid, approved last week the construction of a new Church for the Parish of St Theresa of Avila. Established a decade ago to serve the growing community in a newly developed neighborhood, the Parish has been housed in very modest prefabricated structure.

Prompted by a group of active parish members and backed by the Bishop, Mons. Juan Antonio Reig-Plá, work on designs for the new building were begun in 2019. Granda Liturgical Arts provided the design work pro bono, given that the workshop and headquarters are within the parish.

Rendering of the main facade to the street.

The parish is currently housed in these prefabriated metal structures.

The Bishop gave succinct but very clear instructions for the design: “A church that looks like a church”. Working firmly grounded on this principle, balancing the economic possibilities, planning limitations etc, the design draws deeply from local vernacular traditions.

The layout is out of necessity of great simplicity; a single nave church with the parish center attached to the side, which will contain a daily Chapel, sacristy, offices and a large number of rooms to be used for religious education and the many activities in the parish. The second floor includes two apartments for priests and a large hall for events.

The architectural language is deliberately humble, with simple clean lines and materials that are familiar to locals and affordable: brick and tile. The façade of the church aims to integrate itself into the historic image of the churches of Alcalá, a University town strewn with convents, as well as the traditions of the Carmelite foundations of St Theresa, the patron of the parish.

View from the sidewalk showing the prominence of the "espadaña"

View from the park that surrounds the plot

The main visual focus of the building is the bell-gable or “espadaña”. Rather than a full belltower, this solution is both less costly and a prevalent feature of country churches all over the region. The gable rises perpendicular to the façade so that is mostly visible from the surrounding park and the long street to which the plot faces. The three arches which recall the Most Holy Trinity, hold the bells, rung from choir loft below.

The portico in front of the porch provides a space protected from sun and weather before entering the building. Its design is directly inspired by vernacular examples from the area. A glazed ceramic tile, “azulejos” image of Our Lady provides a devotional outdoor space. The change of scale, from the outdoors to a lower ceiling space that then opens into the church gives us a visual transition from the world into the sacred.

Inerior rendering.

Given the limited budget, the interior is planned with the bare minimum, an exercise in noble simplicity. Its design is heavily inspired by the University of Alcala’s chapel of St Ildefonso and the disappeared Archepiscopal Palace. A simple framed background holds a natural-scale Crucifix and the Tabernacle in the apse, while two similar structures frame shrines for Our Lady and St Theresa on each side of the sanctuary, and an additional one to St joseph in alcove on the side. The biggest concession to decoration is the wooden ceiling or “artesonado”. This is a simplified version of this style of ceilings, which originated in Spain under Islamic rule, but continued to develop well into the renaissance. The intricate crisscrossing of beams converges in an 8-pointed star above the altar.

While this project might seem plain to our readers in the North America, given the large number of newly built churches found there, it is quite the oddity for Spain, where Modernism and its contemporary currents are hegemonic. One only needs to see the last churches built in Madrid to realize how defiant this proposal is at its core.

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