The Native Evolution of Jingliao Church

by on Wednesday, 06 October 2010 8050 hits Comments
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Translated from Chinese by Conor Stuart

"I think the future of architecture does not lie so much in continuing to fill up the landscape, as in bringing back life and order to our cities and towns."
——Gottfried Böhm

Holy Cross Church: Made in Germany for Taiwan

In 1955, the German priest Eric Jansen, of the Franciscan Order, was sent to the Houbi township in Tainan County to establish the parish of Jingliao. For locals, this á-tok-á [Taiwanese language semi-derogatory term that uses “big nose” to describe foreigners] was quite entertaining: he could play the accordion, and imitate the calls of lots of different animals and often used a slide projector. However, what heightened their curiosity towards him was his unexpected decision to build a Catholic church in this small township. At the time everyone was primarily interested in seeing what foreign buildings looked like, no-one anticipated (not even the priest himself) that decades later the church’s presence would have such a dramatic effect, and become such a prominent tourist attraction, and the reason for this fame would be another foreigner.

Through the recommendation of another priest from Sinying (新營) Parish, Jansen managed to get in contact with a young architect called Gottfried Böhm. Böhm is from the south of Germany and was born into a family of architects, a family particularly known for church design. After a period of correspondence, Böhm agreed to Father Jansen’s request. At the end of 1955 the blueprint was completed, and in 1960 the work was completed and the church opened for use. The people of Jingliao were, from then on, free to frequent a very peculiar church.

In 1986 Böhm won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is seen as an equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the architecture world. However very few people are aware that one of his works in in Taiwan, and it is said that even Böhm himself forgot about it.The plans were only unearthed three years ago, and everything that Jingliao Church had gone through in the intervening years was made public, which made people flock there in large numbers, to see this sacred shrine of architecture.


The silver hall amongst the billowing rice plants

In Jingliao, the Holy Cross Church leads somewhat of a distinctive existence: The silver grey of the steeple rises suddenly above the rice plants towering over them. On top of the steeple there are different decorations all replete with religious symbolism including a cockerel, a dove, a cross and a crown, so as to indicate respectively the belfry, the baptismal font, the sanctuary and the resting place of the Blessed Sacrament. Beside the church is a dormitory and a kindergarten, all enclosed within the same compound, and interlinked.

bohm_church_4When designing the Holy Cross Church, Böhm was heavily influenced by Modernism, with its simple lines as well as the abundance of natural light and open space. However his family trade was architecture, so the basic traits of European Catholic Churches are still noticeable in the entire Church, like for example, in the steeple, the baptismal hall and the wall mosaics, the convention of having the Baptismal Hall separate from the main church has also been adopted.

In addition, one can also observe Böhm's attentiveness to detail in terms of Circulation Design, the way from the belfry to the church is low, until after it winds around the holy water font, then the entire space becomes brighter and more spacious.

Finally when one arrives at the altar, radiant light spills down from the steeple, falling exactly where the cross and the altar lie, the altar is lighted from the windows behind it, bestowing a natural sanctity to the ambiance. Böhm also designed the decoration and religious vessels, making the architectural structure consistent with the interior. The presence of these decorative features, not only enriches the structural details, but it also endows the entire space with a certain integrity. Even so, the very tangible European style of the church looks out of place in the surrounding scenery, so how could it be integrated as an everyday space for local residents, and become a part of their community? The way in which this happened is perhaps the most interesting of all.


Reinventing piece by piece an alien concept of the local

bohm_church_3All the plans by Böhm were completed in Germany, and he never set foot on Taiwanese soil. In the plans, with the exception of a few embellishments like a few palm trees in the background, and a few notes in German detailing the interior of the church, like "Formosan window lattice" on the plans for the main chapel, it's not known what image he had of this exotic island, and how much of this imagined image that he incorporated into his design concept. For example, the altar in the church is octagonal; according to the present Parish Priest, the inspiration for this design was the Eight Diagrams derived from the Classic of the I-Ching, which is familiar to all Taiwanese. However he also mentions that many altars of many European churches are octagonal, said to symbolize the Eighth Day of Creation, which is often used within the church as a metaphor for new beginnings or rebirth.This ambiguously double layered symbolism helps to bridge the gap between foreign architecture and localism.

There is also a more active local reclamation of the church, which manifests itself in the addition of “native” features after the fact.The incense burner is a good example of this; as one approaches it, the burnt remnants of joss sticks are clearly visible. The priest states that incense has been used in the mass traditionally, so using an incense burner during rituals is not particularly inappropriate. However, due to its proximity to an icon of the Holy Mother, this attacks our notion of what constitutes “the Western Church”, with the appearance of red ancestral tablets sitting on a table inscribed “These tablets are in commemoration of the ancestors of Houbi township”. Despite the fact that Catholic Church permits an altered form of manism amongst its Chinese congregations, seeing this kind of offering in plain view gives an uneasy feeling of novelty. Since Vatican II, which advocated the integration of local customs into the Church, incense burners and manistic tablets have been pouring into churches, which is very effective in decreasing the distance between the church and the people.

The current appearance of the Jingliao Church is actually the result of the 40 intervening years of reconstruction efforts. First, the humidity of the climate caused certain parts to collapse and come apart, the only solution was to switch to more climate friendly materials to repair them. The belfry by the entrance had collapsed in a natural disaster and was rebuilt, the new pillar was painted in five colours, and it bears a striking resemblance to a part of the neighbouring kindergarten.The window behind the altar has been boarded up, the reason for this being that a former priest of the parish had found the light too irritating to the eyes during mass.As for the steeple, the internal structure of which was formerly visible, due to rotting of the Chinese juniper timber used, the steeple began to leak, so it was sealed off. Faced with the rigours and demands of regular use, the aesthetic beauty and creativity of the design cannot but yield to practicality.


Returning to the realities of life

From the perspective of local residents, this compromise is not wholly inappropriate; to them, this bizarre church has already become an integral part of their lives. On weekdays children come to attend the kindergarten, adults come to mass to hear the priest preach in Taiwanese. On holidays the tourists flock to catch a glimpse of the famous church, and they are also the object of the discussions of residents. When the annual "Jingliao Dowry Culture Festival" (菁寮嫁妝文化節) arrives, couples clad in phoenix crowns and scarlet gowns can come here to be married, as the priest holds a stick of incense, and prays on the altar laden with the ears of rice plants. When attending a festival, there's usually an old resident who is familiar with the history of the church who will inform whoever will listen of the "Formosan window lattice" once changed for a dull aluminum door, fortunately now changed again for a red oriental style window lattice, they will point at the stained glass and remark that every pane is different, and ask visitors if they think it’s pretty, and without waiting for a response they will mutter, “it’s much more fitting with the style”.

It is evident therefore, that Böhm's aspirations were realized: the church is able to survive in a foreign land, it subsists not as a result of its unique aesthetic, but rather as a result of its incorporation and adaption to the reality of the local setting.


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Photos: Jingliao Church and C. Phiv
Plan provided with courtesy of Taiwan National Museum

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34

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