Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron has unveiled its design for Autobahnkirche, an appropriately austere roadside chapel to be built near the small village of Andeer, alongside the A13 motorway in the firm’s home country. A major north-south route, the A13 transverses the eastern section of the Swiss Alps through the sprawling, trilingual canton of Graubünden.
Along with wayside shrines, ecumenical chapels situated along long and lonely stretches of highway are fairly common across Europe, particularly in Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, where there are nearly 50 so-called “road churches” or Autobahnkirchen. Herzog & de Meuron’s 3,000-square-foot Autobahnkirche will be the first of its kind in Switzerland. While this is somewhat surprising considering both the country’s monastic associations and its white-knuckle alpine highways, the Swiss populace is increasingly non-religious.
The Autobahnkirche aims to be both a singular pit stop for motorists traveling along the A13 as well as introspection-seeking local residents regardless of their religious beliefs (or non-beliefs). Painted in the customary solid white, Herzog & de Meuron’s angular, box-shaped structure will be highly visible from the motorway as a distinctive beacon.
Of the project, Herzog & de Meuron wrote:
“The idea for the chapel in Andeer had to emerge from the site alone, from the location, from the road. And we did not want to work with explicit religious signs or symbols, even less with Christian symbols such as a cross or representations of Christ. We were looking for architecture that would sharpen the perception of visitors — of the location, the natural environs, and even of the way they see themselves.”
The Autobahnkirche will be comprised of four individual spaces, all of them functioning as distinct sanctuaries. One doubles as a sheltered overlook of sorts where visitors can take in sweeping views of the pastoral countryside through a massive ovoid window. The structure’s main entrance is through an airy aboveground sanctuary enclosed by walls that “just lean against each other; they lean and support at the same time,” as the architects put it in a press statement. “One of them stands upright. Almost like the wall of a choir. A simple gesture that emerged almost in play.”
After descending down a staircase from the aboveground space, visitors will enter into the hushed subterranean heart of the chapel, a tunnel-like sequence of three cavernous chambers that will each serve an individual purpose while flowing seamlessly into each other.
The first room will be a circular refuge for “readers” in which natural light pours in from above. Moving deeper into the underground area, visitors will find a more somber room with a reflecting wall that’s illuminated only by candle and a single skylight. “This is the most personal place for visitors; here they are confronted with themselves,” explained Herzog & de Meuron. Beyond this space is the magnificent viewing room, where the dramatic alpine beauty that envelopes the Autobahnkirche is on full display.
“The deeper you go, the weaker the sounds from the motorway and the stronger the sound of your own footsteps,” writes Herzog and de Meuron. “Finally, when you reach the last room, strong daylight streams into the heart of the chapel and you see a panoramic view of the landscape, the village, and the lush green meadows and woods. Perception of the vegetation is heightened by the complementary red of a room-height pane of tinted glass. The sun, setting in the evening, shines through the red glass into this last portion of the chapel, which leads directly to the landscape outside.”
Autobahnkirche is the first building with spiritual affiliations designed by Herzog & de Meuron, although the Basel-headquartered firm did participate in a 1989 design competition for Zurich’s Greek Orthodox Church. No timeline has been made public for the chapel’s construction, or the project’s estimated cost.