San Juan Maria Vianney Church
Enlace Arquitectura, Elisa Silva
La Media Legua, Venezuela
Ricardo Silva, Guillermo Bazo, Rafael Monterrey, Walter Monterrey
Padre Abelardo Bazo
The first time I visited La Media Legua was at the end of 2007. I had just arrived in Venezuela and was eager to work. Father Abelardo approached my uncle who is a civil engineer and asked for his support in building the church. My uncle offered me as the project architect and both of us committed ourselves to the project pro-bono. Because access to building materials was becoming increasingly challenging, and it was important to keep a simple construction scheme so that the community could build it themselves, we settled on using conventional cinder blocks which all local farmers use to build their own homes. Typical construction uses concrete columns and beams while the blocks are merely infill. By inserting rebar and poured concrete into the inner cavities of the blocks they became structural walls with continuous surfaces on both sides of the enclosure. Above the 2.40-meter mark, which corresponds to 12 rows of blocks, openings begin to appear that increase in width as the wall rises, allowing the interior space to be ventilated and naturally illuminated. Three larger openings at eye level bring the exterior landscape visually into the church, framing trees and a cross that marks the edge of the courtyard.
The project’s total cost of 45,050 euros was donated by parishes and archdiocese in European cities as well as private individuals. The church was dedicated to San Juan Maria Vianney to honor the 150-year anniversary of the Ars Priest´s birth.
Father Abelardo Bazo and I started talking about designing a church on a site in the rural setting of La Media Legua, Vargas in 2008. Ten years later, after successfully raising the money needed for the project and building it with the support of the community, the church was consecrated by the Archbishop of Vargas himself in October 2018.
The site is located two and a half hours from Caracas, in the Tarmas Parish of the state of Vargas with a population of 13,500 inhabitants. It sits along the crest of what represents the very end of the Andes Mountain range, enjoying deep views of the Caribbean Sea while tucked away within the agriculture fields of La Media Legua´s hilly landscape. The property (approximately 2,000 m2) was donated by the Monterrey family - who have been farmers and stewards of this land for generations - to the Universidad Simon Bolivar to become a satellite agriculture school, but it was never built. Cleared and flattened in expectation of the project, the community began to hear rumors that the government wanted to build something there and so they organized and came up with a plan to ensure that they - and not others - would decide the fate of their site. Not having a place of worship within walking distance they decided to build a church and Father Abelardo -who was their assigned priest then -was happy to support them.
Given the challenging circumstances that have affected life in Venezuela for the past decades, the fact that the community managed to complete the church and can now actively use it for religious celebrations and community activities represents a tremendous achievement. Moreover, acceptance of the church’s unconventional structure - without columns - where walls full of holes support beams nearly 12 meters in length, and openings are defined by iron pivoting gates that are neither doors nor windows, reveals how special this community is. Looking back, I realize they had to have mustered up tremendous courage and confidence to go along with a scheme for their church so completely different from anything they had ever seen before. Fortunately, they are very pleased with the outcome.
Today the church represents the center of the community. The structure is large enough for celebrations of 200 people. Biweekly masses are accompanied by a choir - complete with percussion and string instruments - that has been formed by neighbors of all ages. They use the church during the week for rehearsals and others hold community meetings and workshops there. The only energy it consumes is for lighting when used at night, since the porous walls allow air to circulate freely and ensure that no mechanical ventilation is needed.
The space that precedes the church is an open field that functions as a public square where children often play. With successive donations it will be equipped with furniture, lighting and a playground.