It is, at first sight, a black gleaming cuboid. A geometrical exercise in minimalism and restraint. Hard edges and clean facades predominate. Dark stainless steel cladding provides a sense of gravity. It appears as a monument, perhaps reminiscent of one of Kubrick's mysterious obelisks in "2001: A Space Odyssey". Yet the sombre starkness of the exterior is deceptive. It conceals a richness of symbolic forms that makes this a powerful and sensitive piece of modern religious architecture.
The Church of Christ, Hope of the World is a popular but controversial project by Heinz Tesar, located in the equally controversial development of Donau city. Donau city can be found on Vienna's main development axis, east across the Danube. It is both modern and multi-functional - a heterogenous space largely filled by office buildings, and condemned by some for its lack of character and coherency.
It is therefore with a sense of quiet dignity that the Church of Heinz Tesar elegantly sits in a turmoil of main traffic routes and public transport areas. Tesar's Church "Christus Hoffnung der Welt" was intended to be a new spiritual centre for Catholicism in Vienna, a city where over forty-nine percent of the population are Catholic. It has all the unique character of Tesar's other projects, such as the Theatre in Hallein and the Essl Collection in Klosternburg.
The design for the Church in Donau city reveals Tesar's fascination with exploring how forms come into being. He is well known for his determination to fully investigate spatial potential using models and sketches, prior to developing any specific architectural elements. Architecture begins before it is architecture. According to the Architecture Museum in Munich, "Heinz Tesar is the poet among today's leading architects."
The positioning of the Church allows it to remain distinct from its surroundings - it is turned diagonal to the urban grid and sunk to a third of its height in the ground. Each corner of the cube is cut away to create the Greek cross, clearly visible from above. Also intentionally obvious from above is the skylight, whose wavy form contrasts dramatically with the geometrical symmetry of the walls. It fulfils two symbolic purposes, firstly to establish a relationship between the interior of the church and the heavens, and secondly to represent the bleeding wounds of Christ. It is intended to be seen from the neighbouring high-rise office buildings, to remind all that it is "by his wounds we are saved". (Isaiah 53, 5)
The exterior of the Church is clad with dark chromium stainless steel plates that change from a deep purple to a shimmering silver in different light conditions. Chrome-plated steel is the hardest and most valuable steel, and is usually reserved for turbines or aircraft engines. The plates are dipped into acid, resulting in the dark colour. Tesar chose this material for its preciousness, its beautiful gloss and the way it emphasises the weight of the cubic volume. Bright silver bolts form a pattern across the faade, animating it and mediating between the rectangular plates and the circular porthole-type windows. These windows are perhaps the most striking feature of the Church. They allow the interior of the Church to be crosshatched with beams of light, and at night the Church glows softly like a lantern, or a lighthouse.
Internally the Church has a very different presence. Pale birch panelling on the walls and ceiling contrasts dramatically with the dark exterior and gives the interior a sense of warmth and vibrancy. The play of light through the round windows is especially significant in defining the Church's character from day to day. The interior elements are minimal, monochromatic and simple. Incorporated into the birch lining of the eastern wall is a circle with a subtle golden cross inside it. The altar is monolithic, made from syenite and almost black in colour, with the pews arranged around it in a semi-circle. Internal porches are curved and echo the wave of the skylight. At the corners of the room are the Baptistery, the tabernacle and a Madonna. Heinz Tesar, with his son Marc, also designed the liturgical instruments of silver, ebony and chrome-plated steel.
The success of the Church as a religious building is largely due to the effective use of contrast in the design. The relationships between interior and exterior, light and dark, and curved and straight lines are particularly important. The Archbishop of Vienna was generous with his praise of Heinz Tesar's Church, commending its ethereal presence and unique Christian symbolism. It is a luminous space, he says, that reminds us of hope and healing. "A place of quiet, a place of celebration, where the community is invited to gather around the altar because it has found, and it believes in Christ, the hope of the world." +
Previous. The interior of the Church of Christ, Hope of the World. The warmth and light colours contrast dramatically with the exterior.
From top. Tesar worked extensively with models to explore spatial potential and evolve the cruciform geometry of the church. Photograph: Atelier Tesar.
Donau City's chromium cube. A simple cross marks the site as religious.
The baptistry. Dark stone stands out against the light wood of the floor and walls.
Plan of the church.