It's hard to believe from the image above that this concrete structure is the bones of an iconic Milanese church. While it might look more like a section of highway overpass to the untrained eye, the building was in fact a revolutionary piece of engineering that resulted in a modern church of astounding beauty. Chiesa di Nostra Signora della Misericordia (or Our Lady of Mercy Church) in Baranzate on the outskirts of Milan has now been restored to its former glory by SBG Architects.
The project was designed by Angelo Mangiarotti, Bruno Morassutti and Aldo Favini in 1956 and signalled a momentous shift in the design features and construction techniques of Italian religious buildings. Expert use of the type of materials that fuelled the modernism revolution – concrete, steel and glass – combined with masterful technique and created a timeless building that continues to impress 60 years after its original creation. The originality of the structure, its innovative roof structure and iconic transparent glass shell all work to create a highly evocative space that captures beautifully the type of monastic simplicity that has become the hallmarks of contemporary minimalist architects such as John Pawson.
Immediately after completing his architectural degree at the Politecnico di Milano in 1948 Mangiarotti began collaborating with the Triennale in Milan for the VIII and IX Triennale but perhaps more importantly he left Italy for the United States in 1953 for two years where he came in contact with many of the major players in the international scene such as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Konrad Wachsmann. He was also involved in the LOOP competition in Chicago and was a visiting professor to the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It was during this brief but intense exposure to the new architectural styles being developed in the the United States that Mangiarotti developed his particular interest in concrete construction and the application of prefabrication and modular components to architecture and design. Returning to Milan and starting his own design studio in partnership with Bruno Morassutti in 1955, they designed the Chiesa di Nostra Signora della Misercordia as one of their first major projects.
Over the intervening years it had remained a working church but by 2003 it had became clear that the church was in dire need of restoration. Plans were drawn up for the restoration of the building by original architect Bruno Morassutti in 2003, but these had not begun when Morasutti died in 2008, at the age of 88. The project was continued by his collaborator Giulio Barazzetta of SBG Architetti. with work finally commencing shortly after Mangiarotti's death in June 2012. While the documentation and research had begun in 2003 it was a full decade later that restoration work on site finally commenced. Completed two years later with cleaning and repairs made to the concrete structure (which was largely in good shape) and the complete refurbishment of the decomposing polystyrene insulation within the building's curtain wall. This polystyrene acted not only as insulation to moderate the temperatures within the building but also produced the church's ethereal white glow. Positioned between two sheets of glass, one reinforced with mesh, the other clear float glass, the polystyrene had succumbed to years of UV exposure.
It was clear that the curtain wall's polystyrene material could not be simply replaced but required an entire rethink where the developments in glass technology and insulation were taken into account. After a large number of experiments to create the desired levels of reflection, refraction and opalescence, the final solution did away with the polystyrene sandwich construction completely while retaining the visual effect of the original with the utmost accuracy.
SBG Architetti won second prize for their restoration work of Chiesa di Nostra Signora della Misericordia at the Grand Prix 2013-2015 in the category of public service and industrial buildings. Extensive work was not only done to the curtain walls and concrete structure but also to the simple terracotta tiled floors that run throughout the building's 1000 square metre floor area. These had to be replaced with specially made versions that matched the 14 x 28 cm originals perfectly in terms of size, colour and importantly, reflectivity. The various material studies and later procurement were aided by the involvement of Casalgrande Padana, a materials specification specialist based near Modena.
Chiesa di Nostra Signora della Misericordia is situated at Via Conciliazione, 22, Bollate MI, Italy (an area now known as Baranzate, a suburb on the outskirts of Milan). The church is very near the Fiera Milano (home of Salone Internazionale del Mobile). In fact the Fiera Milano metro station was Mangiarotti's last architectural / infrastructure project before his death in 2012. You can find directions to the church here.