Parish Church in Lecce
The building volume comprising the main body of the church, and a lower horizontal wing containing the sacristy, weekend chapel, and offices, are planned around a series of open spaces that includes a pedestrian piazza, an inner court, and the hortus conclusus, a compact meditation area marked by the presence of a solitary olive tree.
Architect Franco Purini, an accomplished graphic artist and architectural theoretician, is fully conscious of the process of reconciling public spaces and building to the collective memory of the local community. In his book Sette paesaggi = Seven Landscapes, a compilation of his personal drawings and writings, he reflects upon the fact that "the first landscapes against which architecture measures itself are those present in the memory of its inhabitants. Private and invisible scenes but this does not make them any less decisive than real ones in the definition of form and nature of places and buildings."
Purini's earlier graphic works, although adhering to a rigorous formal language, tended, according to Manfredo Tafuri, to a "figurative extravagance that was at times approaching Piranesian 'excess.'" Since the 1980s, Purini's work has matured and spurned all that is redundant. The Lecce parish complex exhibits a latent structural complexity that is reflected in geometry by overlapping grids. However, this complexity is intrinsic to the structure and does not detract from the overall geometric clarity and logic.
The forms of Thermes and Purini's "white cathedral" shimmer in stark contrast to the backdrop of azure-blue Mediterranean skies. The external absence of color and the lack of material textural contrasts on the building was a conscious decision undertaken to convey an all-embracing sculptural quality. As Gi˛ Ponti has stated in his compilation of personal reflections, Amate l'architettura:
"Architecture, a plastic and abstract fact, is colorless — if you prefer, has no color. We can conceive of it in terms of color (or colors) and material (or materials), but if we want to consider it or judge it purely as architecture, in its architectural essence, in its architectural validity, we must consider it colorless, just like sculpture or like the volumetric phenomenon of a crystal. Therefore architecture is naturally white."
The dominant component of the parish complex is the main sanctuary, whose plan would be square except for an angled north wall. The adjoining daily chapel, sacristy, and stairwell fit together on the other side of that angled wall to form an overall rectangular-plan building. The internal structural framework of four reinforced concrete columns horizontally interconnected by a series of high-level deep beams creates a rational open gridlike structure that introduces an element of geometric complexity and tension in an otherwise stable cubic form.
The filtration of natural light is one of the main generating forces. Sunlight streams through an upper-level strip of clerestory windows and an elevated chamber projecting behind the altar wall that allows the penetration of indirect light. The latter mechanism is the modern interpretation of the baroque-era concealed light chamber so effectively devised by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Cornaro chapel.
At the Lecce parish, the natural light projected onto the open pillar-beam structural framework casts an ever-changing kaleidoscope of light and shade onto the outer wall enclosure. Light filters through slits cut through the masonry walls of the main hall that are internally clad by local stone. As Louis Kahn once wrote, "The sun never knew how wonderful it was until it fell on the wall of a building."
Set well inside the sanctuary's walls are four massive columns arranged in plan to form a skewed quadrilateral. The volume defined by the columns extends vertically beyond the surrounding building enclosure. A flanking stairwell is characterized by the successive series of flights of stairs that seemingly defy gravity as they are suspended in mid-air.
The stairs structurally cantilevered from the side walls create a visual image that is analogous to Escher's complex illusionistic graphical works. The architectural image conveyed would not be amiss in one of Purini's own "Piranesian" images inspired by the famous Carceri d'invenzione series (Imaginary Prisons). As Purini himself expounded in Sette paesaggi, "the drawing represents the medianic exploration of the shaded side of reason and, contradictorily, the scene of an ideal landscape in which the architect believes he will be happy."
The open-sided bell tower placed at the far edge of the public precinct is a wall-strip element extrapolated in three dimensions. It provides an elegant counterpoise to the horizontal building mass of the sanctuary. A cubic entrance vestibule to the church hall serves as a kind of transitional threshold that separates the sacred realm from the profane.
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