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Circus Lumens

Part 2 Project 2009
Tarek Shamma
Architectural Association London | UK
Circus Lumens approaches the design of an iconic space through an architecture which does not use images. Rather it creates an architecture that engages with the visitors’ senses, and elicits a visual pilgrimage, through impressions of light, and texture. Situated in the heart of Cairo, this church simultaneously ties into the modern city. Through its position on the Nile and its massive construction of the pharaonic material alabaster, it forms a lineage with the ancient places of worship along the length of the river.
The circle is the geometrical element underlying all of the church’s spaces and is used to formally recompose the traditional 14 point pilgrimage of the Way of The Cross. The vehicle for reconstitution is a three point circle, connecting three specific points, and creating a series of seven visual pilgrimage arcs.
These seven ambits create a space that follows a medieval theological hierarchy defined by texture and the quality of light they emit. The alabaster blocks retain at a large scale both compressive qualities (for construction), and translucent qualities (for effect), which are accentuated when thinned, and hide the building’s structural cable when thickened. The circle also defines the shaping of the alabaster, which when milled, allows for a texture that charts the path of, and responds to, different types of light.
The top of the space is defined by the three Divine Arcs (Main, Cross, Virgin) which allow for the only direct light into the space, and pull the pilgrims’ eyes to the heavens. The middle is constructed by the two Corporeal Arcs (People, Women), creating a glowing refracted light through the articulated texture. The polished base is created by two Base Arcs (Falls, Humiliation) that reflect light, taking the pilgrims into Church’s depth, and then from the darkness re-ascend into the light.
Circus Lumens highlights the polemic of Church building in Egypt. It proposes an iconic approach to the design of divine space, an approach that no longer focuses on symbols to convey holy allegory, but rather subsumes the task of figuration into the disposition of the structure, and the architecture, itself.

Tarek Shamma

This project is an incredibly rigorous and serious study of form, space and program. Circus Lumens, as the project is titled, takes as its point of departure the traditional conditions of pilgrimage, ie the reading of a pictorial narrative along a traveled route, and turns it into something both more abstract and strangely intimate. The pictorial narrative is translated into sweeping material textures carved into the surface of the church (in this case a marble onyx) illuminated only by the light entering through cuts in the surface and the translucent parts of the marble; creating an ethereal space.

Alongside the formal proposal, the student produced an exemplary technical study exploring the various potentials and complications inherent in using marble as a construction material for a project this large and formally complex. The models and drawings were used to work through the series of challenges posed by the form and the material – constraints of material size and milling, fastening, thickness, load distribution and illumination. The collection of models eventually became design projects in themselves as each aspect of the church was developed. The seemingly smooth and continuous surface belies the structural gymnastics needed to support such a complex geometry.

As tutors, one of our key interests in seeing this work unfold was how the story of such precise material, formal and technical explorations could be told through a compelling project narrative. The selective use of images highlight the important moments and spatial qualities of the church while conveying aspects of its use and inhabitation. The images communicate the interchange of darkness and light throughout the interior alongside the varying marble articulation across the space – some of them so accurately represented, one wants to reach out and touch these surfaces.

Ms Natasha Sandmeier
Ms Monia De Marchi
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