A church can be the crux of one’s life, or simply a physical structure that blends into its surroundings. This range in meaning serves as the basis for Reading between the Lines, an art installation by design firm Gijs Van Vaerenbergh.
Architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh won a competition, held by Belgian art museum Z33, to create a public space in Borgloon, Belgium, that addressed the town’s relationship with its churches.
Though only half of the town’s 24 churches are still in use, Van Vaerenbergh says, “everybody recognizes them and sees them as the center of the community. They are landmarks in the landscape.” The duo experimented with transparency by crossing the church experience with the landscape experience.
Nestled in a picturesque valley along a popular walking trail, the site allows visitors to see the installation from different elevations and scales as they move closer or farther away.
After considering fabric and concrete, the firm decided to use Cor-Ten steel. “It was quite logical in a way,” Van Vaerenbergh says. Not only could the oxidized metal weather the elements, but it also allowed the pair “to reduce the volume of our sculpture to a minimum such that only the essential part of it was left.”
A nearby church provided the base shape and proportions. “We wanted to refer to the most psychological form of a church,” Van Vaerenbergh says. A laser scan captured the building’s dimensions, from which the architects created digital and physical models. “We started with the full form of the church and then started cutting it,” Van Vaerenbergh says. The ratio of 1 centimeter metal to 9 centimeters of opening maintained the typological form while allowing the landscape to show through.
The 10-meter-tall (33-feet-tall) sculpture could easily divide into 100 10-centimeter-tall layers. It also meant that the team had to create 100 plan drawings for Belgian metal fabricator Cravero. Each plan was marked with the locations of the approximately 2,000 spacers, or columns, that hold the metal layers afloat. The team directed its software programs—Rhino and Grasshopper—to space the columns differently for every layer using the general formula of x plus or minus y, where x ranged from 30 to 90 centimeters and y from 15 to 30 centimeters.
Seven weeks after submitting its drawings to Cravero, the team received the 33 tons of laser-cut metal pieces. Though each piece was numbered, organizing the layers—which could comprise multiple pieces if the layer included the piers between windows—took one week. Shop-welding the layers and spacers together into groups that a crane could then hoist into place on site required another three weeks.
The team’s extensive planning efforts paid off. On installation day, Sept. 24, 2011, “We started early in the morning, and the pieces were already there,” Van Vaerenbergh says. “We ended before dinner.”
Visitors have brought their own preconceptions to analyzing the installation’s meaning. “Some people say, ‘Ah, finally, a transparent church!’ ” Van Vaerenbergh says. But the piece, he says, isn’t intended to make any religious statement. Instead, the “space in between the form is [meant] to leave room for interpretation.”
Note: This article has been updated since first publication to correct the algorithm used for the column spacing between layers. Reading between the Lines was one installation in Z33's Pit project, which comprises a series of art installations that encourage visitors to see the landscape of the Borgloon-Heers region of Belgium in a different light.