The Ancient Church of Vila de la Barca / AleaOlea
The young, establishing architects of AleaOlea, based in Barcelona and Tunis, have transformed the Ancient Church of Vilanova de la Barca. Through ingenious masonry detailing, considered rehabilitation and thoughtful reprogramming, they have produced an award-winning building and new territory for the village in Lleida, Spain.
Left as a roofless ruin after being damaged by bombing in the 1936 Spanish Civil War, the 13th Century Parish Church of Vilanova de la Barca has figured as the, albeit unused, centre of the ancient village it resides in. The church being left in a general state of ruins preserving just its apse (vaulted semi-circular dome) and some fragments of the nave (main congregational spaces) and the western façade required a difficult rehabilitation.
The enduring stonework walls of the old church were initially, and skilfully stabilised and consolidated to provide the framework for the reinstatement of the missing walls and roof. In an effort to recover much of the spatial qualities of the original building, the new hall has been reimagined in an inventive glory. What other rebuilt churches have shown to be a mere paper-máché fix of the original proportions and materiality has instead been delivered thoughtfully through a contemporary palette. These, deliberately opposing the aged stone ruin, express the history and endurance of the masonry foundation below, of which has been skilfully and sensitively repaired.
This dialogue that is created between the ruin and the new architectural insertion is unique for such a holy establishment, removing its initial programmatic intent as a place of worship, its method of reconstruction has given the building new life as a much-needed community hall for social and cultural use, thus ensuring its conservation.
The 700mm thick walls of the church are reinforced by vertically stacked perforated clay blocks, which are supported on concealed steel channels that span its proportions. Alternate white bricks are laid a little forward to their neighbours, creating a richly textured effect that resonates against the corbeled stone and roughened remains of the once lustrous stone church.
Unlike the more defined arched openings of church designs of this era and location, the addition of new rectangular windows that are sited within the perforated clay blocks and brickwork, showcase an architectural delight that responds to its contemporaneous program as a community hall. It is showcased on the west and south sides of the building most prominently, where the external light is modulated by the perforations, allowing a tempered and delicate light to permeate the interior.
This newly established masonry façade is loosely based on a latticework texture, which is complemented by a new gabled Arab tile roof. The whole system aims to be conceived as a new architectural ceramic shell that rests gently on the remains of the ancient walls. It’s lightness and unique detailing provides two sensations that deem it worthy of its accolades. Firstly, through the choice of a masonry façade – in the form of modern clay blocks – it strengthens a perceived solidity of the original, thick stone walls. However, its colour, texture and construction allow a secondary reading, through the light that permeates the interior, it is read as delicate, like a curtain – a veil that fills in the outline of the ruin.
Succeeding in restoring the perception of the old church from the outside, the inside of the building is intensified by the entrance of natural light through its white tectonic shell and the introduction of new windows. A new proposed patio is extended out of the west façade, accompanied by white rendered walls that help ground the dialogue between the new veil and its ancient foundation.
With the addition of new bathroom and storage facilities, the internal hall (nave) has imbibed both its original and a new spatial appreciation. Designed by the architects, a minimal circular candelabra and an array of lights are now strung from the ceiling via long white cords. Giving the effect of glowing cobwebs that both illuminate and fascinate the viewer within the space. Vilanova de la Barca has been blessed with a new community hall, recovering its historical centre. It is a building that gives weight to the feat of architecture to marque new territory that is both beautiful and preserving of memory.