2018 - Venice, Italy

Vatican Chapel, Pavilion of the Holy See


The Venice Architecture Biennale 2018 features the Pavilions of the Holy See representing the Vatican City for the first time. Curated by Francesco Dal Co, the concept takes the form of 10 temporary chapels, each designed by a different architect. Foster + Partners has designed one of the chapels located in a wooded area at one end of the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

The starting point for the chapel’s design concept was to take three symbolic crosses set in the landscape, draped with a tent-like membrane. As the design evolved, the crosses became a tensegrity structure of cables and masts, whilst the membrane developed into a wooden latticework attached to the structure.

Engineered by Foster + Partners and built by Italian furniture company Tecno, the chapel structure reflects the lightness and ethereal nature of the original concept. It consists of a ramped steel floor structure that supports a timber deck and a tensegrity structure which is made up of steel masts and cross arms, braced by prestressed steel cables and small inclined circular hollow sections. These enable the horizontal cross-arms and vertical masts to be separated from one another while remaining structurally stable. Together, they create a roof structure capable of resisting both vertical gravity loads and lateral wind loads.

The space is enclosed by a series of thin timber slats made from larch that span from the deck to the tensegrity structure. They allow dappled light to enter the space, while providing shade and defining the chapel’s volume. The connections between the timber slats and the tensegrity structure were designed to slide independently to ensure that the slats would not be overloaded when the entire structure moved under wind loads.

Jasmine vines planted around the structure will climb onto it over time, softening its contours and releasing a gentle fragrance to enhance the sense of spiritual calm.

  • Appointment 2017
  • Completion 2018
  • Area 128m²
  • Height 6.80m
  • Client Pontificio Consiglio della Cultura, The Vatican
  • Structural Engineer Foster + Partners, Tecnobrevetti
  • 2021 - BigSEE - Wood Design Award 2021
  • Vatican Chapel, Pavilion of the Holy See, Foster + Partners