Published in 3/2021 - Pyhä tila


Built by the Community

Kristo Vesikansa

Photo Tapio Koivula.

It took almost a decade to get the plans together, but eventually the small chapel was built by local volunteers to complete the Tervajärvi campground.

Architect LASSI VIITANEN, when and how did the forest chapel project come about?

My involvement began back in 2011. I was still an architecture student at the time, and I was asked to provide some initial sketches for a forest chapel. The whole project had fallen by the wayside once before, and the cost estimate based on my drawings was also higher than what the client had in mind.

Things went quiet for a bit, but the project was eventually brought back to life in early 2016. At that point, a decision was made to scrap all the previous plans and start fresh. The project was now re-framed as a community effort, or talkoot, as we say in Finland. The local parish ran a tendering process and approached two designers for new drawings. Eventually, they decided to go ahead with my design. After that, things moved quickly, and I created the planning drawings that spring. 

I had submitted a much more open style “forest shelter” design as part of the mini competitive tendering round, where both ends of the structure would open fully. The client, however, wanted to make sure the chapel could be used for more of the year, so the ends are now fixed, and there’s underfloor heating too.

The chapel is primarily used for a variety of parish events, including confirmation camps, which are an essential part of the Evangelical Lutheran confirmation process and a rite of passage for Finnish youngsters, but it can also be booked for marriages and christenings. I’ve just become a father for the first time myself, and my child will be christened in the chapel this summer.

Photo Essi Nisonen.

Tervajärvi Forest Chapel
Architecturestudio NOAN / Lassi Viitanen
Location Tervajärvi, Lempäälä
Gross Area 50 m2
Completion 2020

More photos and drawings of the project

The chapel was built as a collective, community effort. How did that inform the design process?

We definitely needed to make some adjustments, particularly in terms of the timeline. But it also meant that, as the designer, I got to have a really hands-on role, and the whole construction process was very flexible, there were lots of opportunities for exploration and experimentation. We obviously brought in professionals for the more technically challenging aspects of the build. The volunteers working on the project were incredibly motivated, and we did some photorealistic visuals to give everyone a sense of what the results would look like and the specification we were after.

How does to new building settle into the surrounding landscape and the existing building stock on the site?

It’s an elongated plot with a typically 1970s hip roof building that was extended in 1998. There is also an old log-built scout hut and sauna by the lake at the opposite end of the plot. The chapel is located between these two existing buildings, close to the waterfront. You can see it from the water, but otherwise it blends in well with the surrounding landscape. We opted to use some traditional construction techniques here, including a well-ventilated timber structure, board roof and a tarred finish. But I also wanted the chapel to have this contemporary feel and a cohesive form, to add that new temporal layer to the site.

I wanted the chapel itself to speak, to invite passers-by in for a moment of quiet reflection. In my mind, sacred spaces should be open and welcoming places of discovery. That is why there are no institutional symbols attached to the outside of the building at all.The roofline sweeps low, which makes for pleasing proportions. There are no eaves, so the look is very streamlined.

Photo Essi Nisonen.

Inside, the design is defined by a highly structural approach and a clear focus on form. How did these come about?

Places of worship have a twin purpose. People gather in them for joyous, shared occasions, but they also need to be capable of offering succour to individuals at their time of need. It was this notion that guided the design process for me. The curved roof beams form a stiffening structure. As the space is quite small, there was a real focus on keeping the beams very neat and light, and I also wanted to avoid any transverse structures. Ultimately, it was these priorities that defined the size of the beams and the choice to opt for a moment-resisting corner. Everything else has been kept simple: the internal doors are built in, the glass that frames the altar is paired with the sliding door and all interior walls are clad in spruce. 

As the ceiling beams are so visually powerful and expressive, we wanted to keep the furniture simple. The seating is movable which means that the space can be used for all kinds of purposes. 

You have several church projects on the go at the moment. How do you foresee the future of church architecture in Finland?

These spaces are very much in flux at the moment. In the future, the church will need to reduce the size of their estate and to focus their activities into the remaining buildings, especially churches. In some ways, we’re reverting to how things were in the post-war period, when the majority of church activity took place within the churches themselves as there weren’t as many church halls and other communal spaces as there are now. 

We’re used to churches being booked for several consecutive events, one after another. But I think what we’ll see in the future is lots of events taking place side by side, at the same time. Creating spaces that are versatile and flexible enough for that is obviously a big challenge for the designer. On the one hand, you need to protect our built heritage, and accurately identify the most valuable examples of it, but on the other hand, you also need to make sure that the buildings are actually busy and in use and well looked after.

The temporal angle is an interesting and important one. At the moment, the useful life of various building components and installations we use is around 10 to 15 years but when it’s a church you’re dealing with, you’re talking about a time span of hundreds of years. ↙