In any instance of astonishing architecture, there is always the moment of separation, when wheat is separated from the chaff, when the visual cacophony from the neighbourhood abruptly disappears and you are finally confronted with what has been accomplished through design.
Surprise, even disbelief, is what you will feel having travelled along the urban hubris and detritus of Sheppard Avenue East in Toronto's North York on a five-lane road hosting unfettered, often grotesque growth. St. Gabriel's Church, on the other hand, is an exemplar of high, minimal design supported not by flying buttresses but by its serious grounding in environmental design and place-making. Step onto the property and it's possible, even if temporarily, to set aside your preconceptions about the Catholic Church. Rather than a cross nailed to the wall inside the nave, there is a honey locust tree, reclaimed from the original church property, with a stump resembling a bowed head and branches splayed outward like suffering arms.
The Catholic faith has always depended on drama to translate the word of God. From the Gothic era forward, much brain power and labour have been spent on delivering the drama of architecture. Extraordinary vestments and the burning of incense were also imagined as ways to energize the lassitude of the masses. Set well back from the street, St. Gabriel's could easily be confused as a theatre, its monumental glass window and enormous cantilevered canopy favoured devices used to welcome the public into a performing arts centre. In this case, however, the impresarios are the Passionists, an order of the Catholic Church inspired, in particular, by the sacredness of the earth and the elegance of the universe.
There is an undeniable beauty to the worshipping space. Simply rendered with poured-in-place concrete walls (the concrete is exquisitely done), with the tabernacle and reconciliation room or confessional held behind clear glass walls, the space is defined by a double force of movement and light. There is a tremendous, quite exhilarating gap for the priests to travel between the baptismal font, the marble ambo and the altar; refurbished oak pews from the original church have been arranged on either side of the sacred axis.
Rather than creating an introverted experience of worship inspired by stained-glass windows, the emphasis has been placed on the mystery of the natural world. Views are directed to the outdoor gardens just beyond the massive clear-glass curtain wall. And then there is the way that light animates the space, streaming through the coloured skylights that ring the monumental room causing a refracted rainbow to fall on the concrete walls.
St. Gabriel's has been designed by the team of Roberto Chiotti and Kevin Weiss of Larkin Architect Ltd. Rev. Stephen Dunn, founder of the University of Toronto's theology and ecology program at St. Michael's College, was the client who never wavered during the past five years from the need for a sustainable design at Bayview and Sheppard in spite of the barriers put up by the City of Toronto's planning division. Four times, the one-storey scheme was sent to the Ontario Municipal Board; the architects' attempt to site the building on the northern edge of Sheppard was rejected by the city's urban designer, who insisted that he wanted, instead, a six-storey, mixed-used development so that Sheppard could become another "Champs Élysées." In order to finance the $10.5-million construction and design, the Passionists sold the majority of their three-hectare property to developer Shane Baghai, the rainmaker who builds townhouses, condominium towers and single-family palaces according to the Disney aesthetic. Two towers and a six-storey wall of development will now be fronting Sheppard -- in this way, the city will have its little knock-off of Paris rather than featuring up front an original, intelligent design.
Chiotti holds a degree in architecture from Waterloo University and, during the 1990s, completed a master of theological studies at St. Michael's College. He studied under Father Dunn, who was himself deeply inspired by Passionist monk and cultural historian Thomas Berry. For this reason, it was only natural that Chiotti turned to Berry for his wisdom on how to approach the church design. Actually, Berry didn't provide any definitive answers, preferring instead to ask a crucial question: "How will you address the sun?"
Oriented to the south, the church embraces the sun and disperses it throughout its spaces. The curtain wall, canted at a five-degree angle, reduces glare and increases the dynamic of the big worshipping room. Whether you are a believer or not, it's worth the trip to the 'burbs to experience the colour in the universal space -- at the very least, it will surely inspire you to believe in the mysterious patterns of light.
St. Gabriel's has shunned the typical formula of the suburban development and thank God for that. The church might have surrounded itself by a sea of cars but, instead, parking has been mostly placed underground, leaving more room for a perennial garden designed by landscape architect Ian Gray featuring beech trees, black spruce and columnar oaks. A muscular scupper in concrete juts out from the main, south-facing wall to drain rain water collected from the roof into a small, rocky pond set directly below.
Unlike with many other Catholic churches, the 750-person congregation of the Passionists is growing. A massive piazza designed to handle large gatherings spreads out from the east, Tyndall-stone elevation of the church. Worshippers can enter the church here or from the underground parking. Inside, nature is a constant: Light floods into the narthex and there are views to the tree cross set within the garden outside. On the other side of the airy corridor is a living wall of plants being regularly irrigated by recycled water. Though you may be in a religious institution, the idea is that we need to align ourselves with nature.
St. Gabriel's was originally designed in the 1950s by a Florida architect as a modern-style brick structure, which lacked any form of insulation. Ontario Hydro enjoyed the heating bills. The Larkin design challenges the conventional ways in which architecture is assembled. Buildings in North America consume 40 per cent of the world's total energy, asserts Chiotti, 25 per cent of its wood harvest and 16 per cent of its water, and contribute 30 per cent of its carbon-dioxide emissions. Reincarnated, the church provides one of those rare templates for energy efficiency: carpets are partly composed of beet and corn stalks; recycled steel was used for the structure; construction waste has been directed away from landfill to recycling. Even the millwork in the administrative spaces is constructed of strawboard cabinetry which uses little or no formaldehyde.
All of these measures are likely to add up to a silver rating by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.
On paper, St. Gabriel's may well become the most sustainable church in Canada. But, there is another message that comes from a walk through the garden where the stations of the cross are to be located. They chart the evolution and trauma of the universe, from the big bang, to the bursting forth of flowers, to the beginning of agriculture, to another station depicting the atomic bomb's mushroom cloud. "To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a Divine voice," wrote Thomas Berry, the earth scholar. Remembering that, and attempting to move us one step forward, is what makes St. Gabriel's a miracle.