Marek Jan Štěpán - the Czech architect who specialises in building modern churches

Church in Brno - Lesná, photo: archive of Atelier Štěpán

As the numbers of faithful in Europe decline, the question has arisen about what to do with the many churches that are being decommissioned, says Architect Marek Jan Štěpán who is particularly well known for his modern designs and reconstructions of churches in the Czech Republic. His projects have received much attention at home and abroad. 

The Czech Republic is known worldwide for its beautiful and, above all, well preserved historic architecture, but there are also several modern structures that stand out. One of the men who are trying to craft unique buildings in the contemporary period is Marek Jan Štěpán. He is an architect who teaches at the Brno University of Technology and, together with his wife Vanda, runs the architecture studio Atelier Štěpán, which has garnered much critical acclaim over the past two decades.

Marek Jan Štěpán,  photo: Ben Skála,  Benfoto,  CC BY-SA 4.0

His rotunda church in the Moravian village of Sázovice not only won the Czech Architects Grand Prix Award in the Modern Building category, but also received a nomination in the Mies van der Rohe EU prize for contemporary architecture and was selected as one of the 10 best structures of 2017 by the prestigious Canadian architecture magazine Azure. More recently, in 2020, his design of the Church of St. Cathrine in the village of Hrabová in neighbouring Silesia received second place at the Czech Wooden Building of the Year competition.

A Christian himself, Marek Jan Štěpán told Czech Radio’s Vltava station that light plays a fundamental role in his church concepts.

“Material is of course something I work with as an architect, but lately I have been much more focused on light, which is dependent on the buildings design. In the Bible itself God is described as as light. I imagine it as a reflective light, as a scattered light, which has played a role in Church and sacred structures for thousands of years.”

Church in Sazovice,  photo: archive of Atelier Štěpán

From doors to churches

His first church related project was in the Beskydy mountain region, which he worked on together with his fellow architecture students and his parents. However, he soon started receiving small job offers from churches. Simple door designs, turned into window design offers and it continued to grow from there.Today, he is the author of several new churches strewn across the country.

Better known for its unusually high rate of atheists rather than modern church design, the Czech Republic nevertheless did experience a small church building boom in the decade following the Velvet Revolution. This was a consequence of their lack in highly populated neighbourhoods, he says.

Church of Saint Wenceslas in Sazovice,  photo: Patka,  CC BY-SA 4.0

The number is much lower today, because of the decrease in demand. In the countryside the situation is very different.

“In the border regions and in the countryside, the problem is different. There are too many churches in those areas and we do not know what to do with them. We are actually looking into what to do with the many churches today at the university where I teach. It is a question of what we can do and what is too much, of whether it is better to let them fall appart or keep them as ruins which are after all emotionally quite powerful. That is an important question, because there are increasingly more of these cases.”

Church in Hrabová,  photo: archive of Atelier Štěpán

Not all churches are of course destined to become ruins. Just as in other country’s, these structures can and are being redesigned to serve an alternative purpose. Although their design is not as flexible for some types of redevelopment, Mr. Štěpán says that the current consensus favours transforming old churches into civic structures, such as libraries and common meeting places. However, some churches also end up being converted into ateliers, or living spaces.

When it comes to his own sacred structures, the architect says he tries to make them relevant to contemporary society.

“It is my intention to make the churches I design able to speak to contemporary people. That includes atheists. Of course they have to serve their purpose, but when they manage to get across to non believers too, that is ideal for me.”

“I call it poetic minimalism. With the overflow of information, advertisements, and all of the associated noise in general that is typical for today’s world, I feel that sacred structures should provide us with the feeling of safety, almost as a mothers womb.”

Contemporary churches can vary significantly in their appearance. However, when it comes to the typical rural sacred structures, their design in terms of capacity still remains largely the same, with a capacity for around 200 seated people.

Right now, Marek Jan Štěpán is part of the team working on re-building the wooden sixteenth century church in the village of Guty in the Těšín area, which burned down after it was was purposefully set on fire by two adults and a youth in 2017. The destruction of the church was seen as a great tragedy at the time, as wooden churches are very rare in the Czech Republic. Mr. Štěpán says that although the offer for him to take part in the reconstruction caught him unawares, he was already acquainted with the specifics of wooden churches, as he would visit them during his bike rides through the country.

“They are quite incredible these churches, so small, made of wood and old, you feel as if everything inside is speaking to you. I am very fond of them.

“Technologies may have improved, but wood still is in its essence a flammable material. That is the main reason why buildings, including churches, have evolved into stone, brick and concrete structure - they simply last longer. That is the simple and main reason why there are so few wooden churches being built - fire.”

The opening of the Guty church is expected to take place later this year. For Marek Jan Štěpán it will be the second wooden church to have worked on after the Church of Saint Catherine in the Ostrava district of Hrabová, which was re-opened in 2004. Its original sixteenth century form had also burned downtwo years before then.”

The features of modern church design

St. Catherine church in Hrabová,  photo: Martin Fred,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

While the destruction of both of these original churches is understandably seen as a loss, their reconstructions have been swift when compared to the standard construction period of a new church, says the architect.

”It usually takes more than 50 years for a church to actually get built after someone gets the idea. Personally, I can say I was on the right spot at the right time with the churches I built. There tends to be an architectural tender. For example, with the church in Lesna, there were 36 different architectural designs that were proposed. It is usually supervised by the local bishopric, which I think is a good thing, because this higher institution within the church tends to have more experience in supervising these structures.”

Aside from the lengthy process, another important aspect is of course for whom the sacred building is intended for. Catholic, Protestant, but also other churches, less directly related to the core New Testament doctrines all have had their unique styles in the past. However, Mr. Štěpán says that, to some degree, what church officials want their churches to look like can often be the opposite of what they have been known for in the past.

Church in Sazovice,  photo: Saskia Mišová / Czech Radio

“There are several tendencies in the Catholic Church, both conservative and very modern forward looking. It is interesting is that while the conservative Catholics like to have their churches ornate and filled with art, the progressive ones tend to drive more in the abstract direction. In the Protestant churches it is the other way round, the conservatives like their churches less ornate and the modernists want them decorated. Protestantism after all began with a sort of iconoclassm, with clean space. However, the tendencies on both sides are converging, so the decision tends to end up with the architect.”

One component of the typical church design which he says has significantly changed in modern times is the church tower. For those who have not come across a modern church may find it almost inconcievable that a church would lack its characteristic bell tower, but Mr. Štěpán says that this can sometimes be the case with contemporary designs, because the tower itself has become less relevant.

“The tower had a role in the past which is no longer necessary, It served as a watchtower, as an information spreader through its bells. Nowadays, a church tower not only does not serve these functions any more, but its tower is also generally no longer the highest. The modern church I designed in Lesna near Brno, for example, does have a tower, but it serves as a an observation tower for visitors and features a carillon.”

Mr. Štěpán’s architectural work goes beyond churches. He has received awards for his cafe designs, often built in small villages, and has also designed forrest parks. The success of his work does attract the occasional offer from abroad, he says, but none of them has yet been carried through.

Authors: Tom McEnchroe , Ondřej Cihlář
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