By Thomas Wagner.

The wonder of Riola

The documentary film rediscovers a jewel of modern architecture and tells the fantastical story of its creation. At its heart is Cardinal Lercaro, who hoped that Alvar Aalto would transform the new liturgy into architecture.

Bologna. A young man enters the library. He takes four books on the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898 to 1976) from the shelves, puts them on the table and starts leafing through them attentively. In one of the volumes, he comes across a newspaper cutting with the title: “A whole city is waiting for Alvar Aalto’s church”. The young man sets off on his way. We’ll see him again.

A little later on in the watchable Italian documentary film “Non abbiamo sete di scenografie” by Mara Corradi and Roberto Ronchi, which has now been opened up to a larger audience with English subtitles, we learn that 19 November 1965 must have been a very special day. On his way back from the Second Vatican Council, where he led the commission responsible for the liturgy, the Archbishop of Bologna, Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, stopped off at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, which was holding an exhibition about Alvar Aalto’s architecture. Glauco Gresleri, himself an architect, drove the cardinal and describes what happened the first time the cardinal and architect met each other: “Alvar Aalto and the cardinal looked at each other – and that was the moment the story began.” It was an encounter that would have consequences – for the cardinal, for Alvar Aalto, for the commune of Riola di Vergato in the Bologna region, for its residents, for the building contractor Mario Tamburini and, not least, for the history of architecture.

Obstacles, pitfalls and intrigue

The church in Riola that Cardinal Lercaro managed to persuade the architect to build is Aalto’s only building in Italy, the country for which he had long held great affection. Corradi and Ronchi spent four years working on the film. It not only rediscovers the extraordinary building, which had remained largely unappreciated for decades, but also traces all the obstacles, pitfalls, intrigue and setbacks that had to be overcome on the road to its completion. The often rather bizarre-sounding story is told with clear images and a calm tone, using documentary material, interviews with the architects involved, allies, various key figures and residents of Riola. The more the puzzle is pieced together, the clearer it becomes that Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro was not just the instigator of the project. There was more at stake for him than building a church.

A jewel of modern church building

The film then turns to the Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Riola as we see it nestled between river and mountain. In the square in front of the church, we are met by the slightly overlapping concrete blocks of a free-standing bell tower. At a short distance, the nave of the church with its mildly conical taper rises like a little mountain range, its characteristic arches flowing into the sawtooth roof. The simple, white interior is spanned and supported by distinctive sweeping braces, their form reminiscent of the frame of one of Aalto’s chairs. The atmosphere in the large, open space is bright and clear.

The new liturgy, translated into architecture

For some time, the cardinal had been aiming to create a centre for the rapidly expanded suburbs of Bologna and give the people a place to come together – starting with temporary churches. After the council and his meeting with Aalto, he saw an opportunity to bring the Catholic liturgy closer to the believers with modern and different church spaces. The film clearly shows the cardinal’s belief that the architectural space of a modern church created a better harmony with the liturgical space than churches built in the traditional style. Lercaro thus anticipated that Aalto would create something with his human-centred architectural language that would produce a sublime interpretation of the new liturgy, which had been approved in the Vatican just before the two met for the first time.

The film subtly traces the origins and all the twists and turns of the project. It tells of the idea to commission Aalto, of the desire [BE1] to include people from the community when the architect visited the village for the first time, of grand gestures, intrigue, the cardinal’s forced resignation and the stalling of the project. The viewer learns how the residents of Riola did not give up and wanted to secure the building’s completion with donations. We hear about the ultimatum that the building contractor Mario Tamburini gave the Curia in 1975, ten years after the project began.

The church was finally inaugurated with a grand ceremony on 17 June 1978 – two years after Alvar Aalto’s death. The commentary from the historic recording sums it up: “The battle is over, the church is finished.” The young man from the library has now taken the train to Riola and enters the church.

Film trailer


Directors: Roberto Ronchi, Mara Corradi
Soundtrack: Antonio Ciacca, Andrea GastaldelloGastaldello
Length: 60 minutes
Immagica Film, 2017

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