The Chiesa dell'Autostrada - literally the Highway Church - is probably the most surprising space into which I have ever entered. Located at the halfway point of the A1 "Autostrada del Sole" that connects Rome and Milan via Florence, the church was commissioned by the company that built the highway in order to commemorate those workers who lost their lives in its construction (particularly in building tunnels). A rare example of truly innovative modern architecture in Tuscany, it was designed by the Pistoia-born architect Giovanni Michelucci in 1960.
You'll see the highway church as you're driving down the A1, negotiating the ramps around the Firenze Nord exit. If you're like me, you've driven past many times and noticed its greened copper top, wondered how to get there, and not bothered going. So one sunny December's day (a rarity) I set out to finally visit and photograph it. Let me tell you, it was worth the trip.
In an interview with Newsweek of 1961, Michelucci said that his problem in making this church was to convince drivers to stop there, not so much for physical rest, but for some spiritual uplifting. The building was thus developed as a kind of "traffic stopper" that ought to slow motorists down. Its open shapes and continuity with the level and land of the highway itself were also intended as welcoming. With speed limits on the A1 now 130 kilometers an hour, and with the area being much more developed than before, it's more difficult to slow down and look at the church. My visit took an hour and it was indeed uplifting.
I started by circling all 360 degrees of the exterior as I felt invited to do so by a raised walkway that takes you around to admire each facet of the building. It is so surprising! It's hard to describe the emotion of walking around this structure and, every few steps, seeing a different shape, shadow, texture. I stepped around and took photos of each angle. It's only got one "ugly" side, where the bells jet out and it looks rather like the rear end of a cat... but the functional stuff has to go somewhere!
Despite the bright, flattening light of noon, the building's curves, slants, and materials invite the creation of shadows. The cleavage of the roof makes a beautiful dark area. Each hand-cut exterior stone has a texture that stands out in this light. Occasionally the building curves in, indicated by a concrete horizontal, and you can follow that in to a more private space.
The land around the church reflects its original agricultural function and is planted with attractive olive trees which can also be seen as having a symbolic Christological value.
Preface to the inside. My greater architectural experience is with Renaissance churches. In that period, architects like Alberti (and before him, Francesco di Giorgio) thought of the building in relation to the human form. The apse was the head, the transept was the arms, and so on. If the building were made with human proportions, they reasoned, it should be immediately comprehensible to us humans. And in fact, as we're conditioned by the basilica form of churches in most Western countries, most of the time when we enter a church, we have a pretty good grasp of its shape.
As a result, my approach to most buildings is to try to understand what it would look like on a floor plan. While from the outside this is usually not easy, inside I can usually draw it pretty accurately. I went crazy in Michelucci's church. It's no shape that I can intuitively understand. I finally found a floor plan online (it's a screen shot from the video below) that demonstrates that it is essentially a Latin cross plan, turned on its side, with a narthex on its long side, a choir parallel to the narthex, and a separate baptistry. The main altar is in what would be one of the transepts, while there is a smaller side altar at the long end.
You enter inside through glass doors that can be concealed by huge bronze sliding doors that represent the crossing of the Red Sea and the Journey of the Magi by Pericle Fazzini. An attempt to push these sliding doors closed proved that they are very heavy and won't budge. And then you enter into this luminous narthex that is decorated with some large reliefs with depictions of the patron saints of the cities touched by the highway. My next question was: where do I enter the church proper?
To the right there is a ramp, and you head up it and you're in a closed space, blocked off by a wall in front of you and a curve to your right that takes you into a deambulatory with the stations of the cross. So it's not until you follow the wall at left for a few steps that the whole, open inside comes into view. The 27 meter high church is held up by tree-shaped reinforced concrete supports and features an inverted sail vault that looks like the hull of a ship.
What strikes me - other than the organization of the space - is how this combination of modern "industrial" materials (cement, marble) actually give a sense of warmth and manuality. In fact, one of Michelucci's greatest successes in this church was his ability to coordinate with local artisans so that the construction style approximated that of the great cathedrals. If you take a close look at some of the cement features, you can see that it's been poured (and perhaps baked?) in rough forms that have left the imprint, and even some actual pieces of, the wood. It's cement with the warmth of something natural, something that grows. Ditto the rough hewn local marble, each block of which appears to have been hand-cut. It begs to be "felt up" and when you touch the wall, it's not cold, but rather something you can grip, that you want to touch. I am less enthusiastic about the polished marble floor, but impressed at the curvaceous lines with which it was set.
The custodian let us through a wooden door and said we could pick our direction - either go up the spiral staircase, or go down the hall. So up we went, first, and we were in the choir, from which, looking down, you can get perhaps a better impression of the shape of the whole structure. From here we followed a sloping hallway and found ourselves passing through the narthex and into the separate baptistry structure, into which leads a snail-like ramp similar to the Guggenheim's famed stairwell in new york (only smaller). From the bottom of the baptistry, which has the effect of being at the bottom of a well, we followed another sloping hallway, miraculously leading us back to the "secret door".
I leave uplifted, as Michelucci intended.
How to get there:
From Florence airport, continue straight towards the A1 highway, direction Bologna. You will see a service station, and then another km or so along there is the "casella autostradale" (pay booth). You want to get out before that booth, so you follow the signs for Bologna - you'll notice an "Unaway Hotel" in this intersection. At this point there are brown signs with a church symbol that say "Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista". Go slowly so you don't miss any turns, and follow those signs - it's pretty easy to find. There is plenty of parking right out front.
Admission to the church is free, and it's open daily 9 to 16:30 (no lunch closure); on Sundays 9.00 to 13.00 and 15.30 to 18.30 though be careful not to interrupt a service with your visit.
Telephone for info (the caretaker): 055 4219016. The caretaker, whose office is to the left of the front door, will let you into the choir and baptistry areas upon request.
For further information: 20th-century architecture in Tuscany - Catalogue entry for this church (in italian)