Julia Mozheyko and Sivan Arbel were faulted for their hard angles and discordant surfaces despite the name they chose – The Blessed Virgin Mary.


Julia Mozheyko and Sivan Arbel were faulted for their hard angles and discordant surfaces despite the name they chose – The Blessed Virgin Mary.

June 17, 2013

Those who have come to believe secular universities are phobic about the sacred, allergic to transcendence, divorced from the spiritual, God-free zones have not encountered Ed Wojs, associate professor of architecture, Ryerson University in Toronto.

Wojs (pronounced "voice") harangues his students on the subject of contemplation. He assigns them Second Vatican Council documents to read. He sends them to church for research. He pleads with them to discover the deeper meanings within Christian symbols.

He pairs up his fourth-year studio students and assigns each team of two the task of designing a Catholic Church to grace the West Donlands, a former industrial wasteland on Toronto's waterfront about to be redeveloped for mixed residential and commercial land use.

"The point of this course, it wasn't designing a church," Wojs told his students on one of their last meetings this spring. "It was approaching the sacred."

The starting point for Wojs' students is less than zero. Most are religiously indifferent. None could claim to be steeped in Catholic tradition. There's a smattering of atheists, at least one Buddhist and a couple of Jews. Even the nominally Christian among them admit they were unfamiliar with exactly how a Mass proceeds from beginning to end before taking the class.

Yet all of these graduating architecture students chose Wojs' course knowing the only project available was four intense months spent designing a Catholic Church.

Sivan Arbel grew up in Israel, the daughter of atheist Jewish parents. Over the past few years she has become a believer. Her conviction that God exists puts Arbel at odds with her studio partner, Julia Mozheyko - also Jewish but decidedly atheist.

Mozheyko and Arbel spent their spring semester designing the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Beginning with an image of an unborn child nestled in the womb of a pregnant woman, the pair chose "protection" as its theme.

"Choosing a female character for the name was perhaps not a coincidence coming out of two female architects," said Arbel.

"Both of us really feel that we actually have a lot of discussions about the role of the mother and how important it is in our lives, in the lives of children in general. When we thought about protection initially we thought that's who we have to go with."


The attraction of the project was that it demanded so much - so much engagement with the tradition of Western architecture and so much serious thought about what architecture means for individuals and communities.

The goal for all students in Wojs' course isn't to pass, or even to learn a little more about how to design a building. Each of them hopes to graduate with something for their portfolio to impress potential employers.

"It's one big project spanned across the entire semester. You have the opportunity to produce a really finished building," said Taylor Slade. "There's a whole conceptual thought, the depth of conceptual thought, that's calling out to you. It's asking you to define and interpret what a sacred space is."

Slade and Andrew Chee designed the Church of St. Cecilia, basing their entire design on music, specifically on the rhythm of the Salve Regina.

A spare and austere building in concrete, if the Church of St. Cecilia were ever built it would probably strike most Catholics as both radical and traditional. From the outside, this big concrete box doesn't look like a church. On the inside, its soaring ceiling and simple layout appears gothic and traditional.

Julia Mozheyko and Sivan Arbel chose protection as the theme form their Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary.


Julia Mozheyko and Sivan Arbel chose protection as the theme form their Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Slade and Chee wanted to provide people with an opportunity for introspection, knowing the West Donlands neighbourhood will one day be crowded with young people living in 600-square-foot condos and working in open plan offices full of cubicles, said Chee.


"If your life is just going to work, I think this is the perfect place for you," Chee said. "It's a place of solace, a place of meditation."

Chee has an aunt who goes to Mass regularly, but he hasn't yet had a chance to show her the church he and Slade designed. Slade attended Mass for the first time in his life while researching the project.

"I noticed a lot of things that I probably wouldn't have noticed before, especially a lot of the sensory aspects of Catholic liturgy," Slade said. "I never knew, or I wasn't expecting, that there would be so much singing. When you walk in the building you get the smell of incense right away."

The final critique faulted Slade and Chee's Church of St. Cecilia for falling short of a really transcendent experience of the sacred.

Where Gregorian chant flows freely with no set metre, Slade and Chee have transformed the Salve Regina into a rigid grid that confines their design.

Wojs praised them for engaging in a search for the sacred, but faulted them for failing to take their design to the limits.

Mozheyko and Arbel faced the opposite criticism. Once they started designing they couldn't stop. There were too many materials, too many bits and pieces of detailed design.

They subjected worshippers to a kind of carnival of architectural tricks. They latched onto water as a symbol of Baptism, but then put it everywhere with a ribbon of water surrounding the sanctuary under a clear strip of plexiglass in the floor. Interior walls are made with blackened, charred wood.

"Black is the colour of death," noted Regis College art history professor Father Peter Larisey after he had a chance to review the design.

Arbel and Mozheyko betray their initial image of the pregnant Mary with a building full of hard angles and discordant surfaces. If anything defines a womb it is its organic elasticity.

The 12 pillars which surround the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary's sanctuary taper nearly to a point at their base, making for an image of instability in a place dedicated to the eternal and the true.


But whatever the failings of the student designs, Wojs' class represents an encounter between the sacred and the secular quite unlike our usual fear of irrational conflict between presumed opposites.

Neither do we have a shouting match between believers and unbelievers. The secular and even atheist students have tackled the sacred with respect for its power and persistence in our lives.