Published in 3/2021 - Sacred Space
The Church Has Come to Stay
The old church of Ylivieska burned down at Easter five years ago. The new church weaves together time levels, references and meanings with its architecture.
My childhood home was located on the banks of River Kalajoki, three hundred metres from Ylivieska Church. The landscape of my mind is an image – resembling a watercolour – in which there are plains, spotted by a few barns, under the vast sky. In the middle runs a river. There is a narrow church steeple at a distance. For me, the church means home and a place which I identify with. I will always carry it with me, wherever I go.
The village grew on the shores of the tranquil waters section of the river, which was shallow and could be crossed by foot. When Ylivieska first became a market town and, thereafter, a town, wooden buildings, one after another, disappeared from the sides of the village road, and they were replaced with larger buildings. All that remained were a few commercial buildings, a co-operative shop with a functionalist style, a mill, and a wooden cruciform church dating from 1786.
The church was destroyed by fire on Holy Saturday in 2016. The news touched everyone. The value of things and the finiteness of life can only be understood through loss. Many people hoped that the burned church would come back in its original form. Five years later, on the site where we had been looking at the burning church, the third church of Ylivieska was consecrated. Next to the new church are the old churchyard, the ruins of the old church and the cross. If the fire was a shared grief, the construction of the new church was a shared effort.
More photos and drawings of the project →
A Present of Things Past
The archetypical form of the new church – the gables with crosses and the long roof planes – and the brick walls that manifest stability are conceived, in the Finnish tradition, as belonging to medieval stone churches. However, there is none in the area. I realise that the composition formed by rectangles and triangles – which the architecture of the new church is based on – can be regarded as being borrowed from the burned church and as a link to the tradition of wooden churches and church builders of the past. The three gables of the old cruciform church have been re-composed in order to correspond to the mutual hierarchy of the interior of the new church. This hierarchy can easily be recognised, just as in the old cruciform church. The highest space in the new church is the worship hall, to which the ceilings of the lobby and parish hall are merged.
The church cross is Greek, and not a more familiar Latin cross. At the eastern gable, there is a bronze cross. In the western gable, a cross takes shape in the holes left in the arrangement of the bricks. The holes are part of the ventilation system of the worship hall. The altar cross is wooden. The cross – which is a conventional symbol of faith – can also be regarded as a trace of the burned church. Originally, the old church was an equal-arm cruciform church, and it was only in 1892 that it received its steeple and neo-Gothic form. The three niches – which are located in the eastern gable – refer to the Holy Trinity. The old church bells are now kept in the niches.
The warm, yellowish rustic bricks of the facades have been manufactured by the Raudaskylä brick factory, which is located by the upper course of the river. The bricks may even have been manufactured closer than the place where the logs of the burned church were felled in the past – there is very little sturdy timber on the mires between the river valleys. Brick as a material, as well as the relating dimensional accuracy and craftsmanship, connect the new church – temporarily and geographically – even further back in time, i.e. to early Christian basilicas. In addition, the spreading of the grouting onto the surface of the brickwork is a very old method of treating brick and stone walls. The grouting protects the surface, hides the joints and creates a feel of solidity. The church walls look like a huge relief invigorated by its builders, light and shadows.
A Present of Things Present
If the form of the church has been borrowed from the past, the spatial arrangement repeats the canon of the modern church architecture. A lobby with a glass wall, a high worship hall and an adjacent parish hall form a clear whole that is spiced up by natural light, scarce materials and details.
The church entrance is located at a yard that is lined with birches and a wall next to the war graves. This is the most fascinating point in the geometric composition: the sloping entrance side is different from the otherwise rectangular axes. The interior space is high, the white ceiling has been bevelled, wood and brick have been used in the walls. The floor is polished concrete, a vivid grey floor, like a rock under the church. From the lobby, you can enter the worship hall via an intermediate space – from a soft, dark space to a spacious landscape.
The source of the light is not visible. It is enough to feel the light. I come to think that I get the same kind of calm feeling in the river valley landscape, where the light appears to even shine through a cloudy sky. The light to the worship hall is let in from a skylight in the southern roof plane and from a lightwell above the altar – the windows of the eastern gable also open up towards the lightwell.
The soft light in the choir is comparable to the dim light coming through the clerestory windows in the high naves of early Christian churches and Gothic cathedrals. The white colour of the choir walls is not just white, but an unlimited number of tones that transform according to the light. Wood is present in the lattices of the walls and ceiling, as well as in the pews, pulpit and altar. The finishing is pared-down and timeless, the details thoroughly considered.
Besides the light, the sound also shapes the space. The Baroque organ is still being built, which is why the organ loft – on top of the lobby and intermediate space – is, so far, empty. Here people are also able to sing without an instrumental accompaniment, following the local religious tradition.
The sacristy, bridal room and childcare space are located on the northern side of the worship hall. In these rooms, ministers, as well as brides and grooms, prepare themselves for meeting the congregation and for church ceremonies and rituals – the turning points in people’s lives. The view to the graves and the ruins of the old church is calming. The distance to the ruins of the old church, from one sacristy to another, is only a few dozens of metres. Compared with the worship hall, the parish hall is an everyday, intimate space, even though the roof is high up. There is a kitchen behind the wall; they provide coffee and buns after the service.
The ventilation, lighting and the other building services technology are, by no means, equipment and gear that would be separate from the building, but they are part of the architecture. They also have a large effect on how we experience the space. A special feature in the new church is assisted natural ventilation in the worship hall. The air enters the space from the ducts beneath the floor and exits from the holes in the cross that have been left in the arrangement of the bricks in the western gable. The church breathes through the cross.
A Present of Things Future
From a route that runs to the organ loft, one can also enter another kind of a space, which is located between the roof and ceiling. This space is used for maintenance and service. In the space, you can see a structure, with glulam frames and structural innovations, that creates the form of the new church. The worship hall can be seen through the lattice; I have had corresponding experiences at attics and basements of some historical monuments, churches and manors. Spaces that are regarded as secondary, as well as hidden structures, help you to understand the history of a building, as well as its connections and meanings. This is also true in Ylivieska Church, where the space between the roof and ceiling is a key to understanding the building. It reveals how the external appearance and the interior are integrated with each other.
The new church also binds together the surrounding buildings – which are of different ages and types – and already carries memories, even though it was recently completed. The ability to improve its surroundings and to reveal hidden meanings are characteristics of good architecture.
The ridge of the church is high up and the roof planes are wide. The church has become the centre of the village, as well as a natural part of the landscape and the lives of local people. It is suitably imposing and visible, and – with the help of meanings and symbols – it carries on the tradition. And yet, it is simple, keeping to the local tradition.
My church. ↙
Architect, DSc (Arch.). Specialised in preserving old and new built heritage, in practice and in theory. Head of Restoration Unit of The Governing Body of Suomenlinna.