Raw Faith: BAAD Studio’s Pilgrim Shelter

BAAD Studio’s concrete nipa hut makes the shortlist in WAF 2022’s Future Project, Civic & Community category

Words Judith Torres
Images BAAD Studio

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They wanted it to be welcoming. Familiar, yet original. Above all, it had to be resilient—no storm would topple their church again. And because they wanted a forever shrine to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the design had to be timeless. Not extravagant, but humble and sustainable.

The Pilgrim Shrine, as BAAD Studio calls the project, is now under construction and indeed appears to possess all the attributes the client, priest, and members of the choir and congregation asked for in online meetings and chats with the architects.

The all-concrete Pilgrim Shelter is 67.5 meters long and 16.2 meters wide, not counting the spill-over spaces on the sides.

The client is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Inc., a company headed by siblings that owns the 670-hectare Pueblo de Panay Township in Panay Island’s Roxas City. In 2011, they had an 11-storey-high statue of Jesus constructed on Tumandok Hill within the township. In the years following the statue’s completion in 2015, the hilltop became a pilgrimage site where masses and healing sessions are held. Devotees donated enough to build a church at the statue’s foot, a humble structure of bamboo with a thatched roof.

The bamboo structure, however, did not survive the onslaught of tropical cyclone Ursula, which ravaged through the Philippines in 2019 and on Christmas eve, tore the nipa hut-like shrine to shreds.

Instead of dampening their devotion, the community resolved to rebuild the shrine “with a design that would withstand the test of time and the elements.”

Eight pairs of buttresses hold the concrete roof aloft.

The client and one of their subsidiaries, Blue Chip Builders, plus another member of the congregation whose business is cement, are the main donors. Another donor is taking care of the pews—enough to seat 600 people. Rich and poor, everyone pitched in.

BAAD’s project description reads: “The studio was inspired by this fervent devotion. They wanted the new Shrine to mirror the people’s strong faith, so they took the humble silhouette of the nipa structure and armored it to perform in the harshest conditions. The concept of a modular precast concrete system was then born, which strikes the perfect balance between rigor and permeability.”

The existing statue depicts Jesus wearing a scarlet robe. BAAD Studio has suggested painting the statue white or light gray.

Designing for the community

“Miss An is a native of Roxas City,” explains Pamela Sargan, one of the architects that worked on the project, “which is why we have projects there.” An is a partner of the firm and life partner of “B” in BAAD, which stands for Benjamin Annabelle Architecture Design Studio Co.

Consultation with all the stakeholders proved to be a challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Philippines had one of the strictest lockdowns in the world and back in 2020, no one really understood the virus; fear was rife; inter-island travel was at a standstill, and many businesses had ground to a halt.

Fortunately for BAAD, this was not the case. They were busier than ever; work was pouring in–clients wanting to have their homes renovated, others who wanted their businesses to be ready for when the pandemic ended, and then, the Pilgrim Shrine.

Long conversations were held on Zoom about what the client and church leaders envisioned for the shrine; the folks from Pueblo de Panay and Roxas City sent their wish lists and photos of churches they admired. “They were very detailed about the things they wanted to be able to do at the shrine, how they pictured themselves moving through the spaces,” recounts another architect from BAAD.

The community fell in love with BAAD’s proposed design. It had the pitched roof and general shape of their old church. Instead of nipa ‘shingles,’ there were curved layers of concrete, which somehow expressed the organic character of nipa. It was familiar and yet they had not seen a church like that before. It was open, welcoming, and graceful. And the altar would be set in an indoor garden with trees!

The ceiling at its apex is nine meters high, its horizontal bands of natural light direct the eye forward

The people were so enthused that even after construction had begun, they had more requests and wish lists. “There were ideas for the Stations of the Cross, a prayer garden, a place where people could light candles and offer prayers,” says Sargan.

The donors did not dissuade the community from dreaming big but instead stepped up, allowing the project to balloon into a religious complex atop the hill, with a monastic cell, private chapel, a half-kilometer loop for the Stations of the Cross, a Garden of Saints, a Rosary Garden, a large multi-purpose hall, canteen, and stores.

A render shows striated interior concrete walls bracketing pairs of folding jalousie doors.

Slight modifications were also requested for the church itself. The church folk realized that the shrine would eventually need to accommodate more than 600 people—probably 800, maybe more. The spaces between the buttresses could serve as spill-over spaces, BAAD said. And they would add three-meter eaves to shelter these spaces.

It may not be the ideal way to plan a complex, but the people’s faith was a living, growing thing, and every act of giving from the community fed their faith further.

New site plan incorporating the parishioners’ additional requests

BAAD’s WAF submission

If the Pilgrim Shrine wins the World Architecture Festival (WAF) 2022’s Future Project, Civic & Community category, where it is now shortlisted, it will be BAAD’s second WAF triumph. Their first is the Sunken Shrine of Cabetican in Pampanga, which won the category in 2017.

That victory made BAAD eligible to vie against eleven other Future Project category winners, where they earned the super jury’s Highly Commended nod for WAF Future Project of the Year 2017.

BAAD is also shortlisted in WAF 2022 for the Farm House, home of the firm’s principal architects, Benjamin and Anabelle Mendoza, in Tagaytay, completed earlier this year.

WAF 2022 takes place in Lisbon from November 30 to December 2. •

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