Pizzigoni’s Tent for God

[Ian Macready]
The Beata Vergine Maria Immacolata in Longuelo Bergamo

It’s funny how the Catholic Church can appear to be so utterly conservative and at odds with the social mores of the day, and yet it has commissioned so much innovative architecture from Manila (Leandro Locsin) to Managua (Ricardo Legoretta) , Ronchamp (Le Corbusier) to Rio de Janeiro (Edgar Fonseca’s Mayan-style cathedral).  In the northern Italian town of Bergamo (you know the town with the airport that Ryanair tried to pass off as Milan, some 45 kilometres away) sits one of the most extraordinary concrete churches approaching its 50th birthday. Designed by the relatively unknown local architect Pino Pizzigoni, this was his last work and his strange masterpiece.

He studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano alongside Terragni and Bottoni, leading rationalist architects of the fascist period, although Pizzigoni steered well clear of politics. In the late 1950s the new residential suburb Longuelo of the ancient town of Bergamo, were looking to create a distinct identity for themselves with a new and truly contemporary church. Pizzigoni who had already some experience in the design of churches, at least in competitions, was given the job to design the new church in 1960 and his designs were presented in 1961. Construction began two years later in 1963 after several calls to tender. Very few builders seemed to want to take on the complex design.  The original budget was estimated at 25 million lira but ended up being closer to 75 million. Very near the end of construction in 1965, Pizzigoni was relieved of his duties, due to the budget overspend and to ease the resultant tensions he donated a statue of the Madonna. The church was consecrated in June 1966 but was not so well received locally, either by the local press or the priesthood.

To understand the design of the church, should you be so inclined, you can immerse yourself in the study of partial hyperbolic paraboloids, the Möbius Strip and Euclidean Space and homeomorphism. But one of Pizzigoni’s design ideas was the biblical concept of the Tent as pitched by God, which makes it easier to grasp. Even though the building is geometrically complex, the concept behind its shape is simple and rational. The church spans over 900 square meters, with a maximum height of 18 meters – it is divided into four identical free parts which form a perfectly symmetric, centrical layout for the church. The internal shape had to result in a single and smooth surface, composed of different parts but apparently from a single enclosure. Walter Balducchi, the Bergamo local from Viewport Studio, took his camera up there last weekend to visit and photograph the church. Walter has also retraced the original plan drawing as shown below. And Walter reports that the current priest is very enthusiastic about the church design and is looking forward to the 50th birthday celebrations next year.

Pizzigoni died a year later in 1967 at the age of 66 and his work remains largely unnoticed, except by a few hypar (hyperbolic paraboloids) nuts. However should you find yourself on a flight to Milan that lands in Bergamo, this little church is definitely worth the detour.


Thanks to Walter Balducchi for the photography and the tip off.


The rear view
The interior view towards the altar
The view of the stained glass entrance
The complex roof structure from the inside
The centre of the ceiling
Walter's tracing of the floor plan
The view of the church in its environment
An old photograph taken during the construction of the frame work
A photo stolen from the internet of St. Mary's Cathedral Tokyo, designed by Kenzo Tange and completed in 1964, and one of the key influences on Pizzigoni's work
The new altar piece as designed by Pizzigoni's son
A view of the interior with natural lighting