A simple structure shows the elegance and power of timber building in one of the loveliest but least expected German settings.

Ruhewald Schloß Tambach is not your everyday cemetery. Set in the grounds of Tambach Castle, near Coburg, Germany, it is made up of hectares of Bavarian forest. People’s ashes are laid to rest among the trees and returned to nature in all its beauty.

When it came time to commission a chapel for the cemetery, the building had very specific requirements to fulfil. It needed to provide a protective space for contemplation and reflection for friends and relatives, who may be grieving or seeking spiritual solace. At the same time, it needed to sit quietly in its woodland surrounds and not impose itself on mourners.

The design, by Gerhard Sacher of Graz-based sacher.locicero.architects is made up of a series of glulam arches, each related to every other and to the shape of the overall chapel through a series of calculations based on the Golden Section (or ratio).

Most famous as the proportion used repeatedly by Leonardo da Vinci, especially for his Vitruvian Man drawing, the Golden Section recurs frequently in nature and is a proportion that has historically been used to create structures that are ‘pleasing’ to the eye. Le Corbusier used the Section as a key calculation in his anthropometric Le Modulor scale of proportions.

The other design theme is the number seven, which also held significance for the architect, from the Biblical seven days of Creation to the seven near-Earth heavenly bodies observable to the naked eye. From these two themes, Sacher designed a simple, shell-like building with an internal footprint of only 36m2.

With lines derived from the Gothic pointed arches familiar to visitors of the region’s historic churches, seven arches form the interior of the chapel. Their shaped structural beams are made of glulam spruce, strength class GL24h, supplied by Mayr-Melnhof Holz. These were produced with a CNC milling machine as the cross sections of each individual piece change constantly, both in terms of their height and their bending radius.

The beams give the outer shell of the chapel a turned-upwards rising surface. Starting with the lowest arch at the entrance, whose height is 4.79m – exactly the breadth of the chapel, the building flows up to the highest arch, whose height of 7.75m corresponds exactly to the chapel’s length.

The arch beams are anchored by means of steel shoes on a wooden floor grate made of glulam spruce GL24h, which in turn rests on six concrete foundation piles.

From inside to out

A ventilated solid wood formwork of 30mm spruce covers the arches. Over it is a layer of insulation (the area frequently snows in winter and the chapel is visited year-round) and over that is a three-layer cladding of 15,000 30cm split larch shingles, supplied by Schindelzentrum Allgäu.

The shingles are designed to change colour as the chapel ages, as is the copper-covered door set into the smaller gable side. The two gables are generously double glazed with 10mm safety glass, laminated with a clear 1.52mm PVB film (for additional insulation). At the taller end, the glass is mounted into simple metal channels, forming a subtle crucifix. The structural glazing was supplied by Saint-Gobain Glass and Glas Marte.

These huge panels of glass mean the seasons and the forest are always integrated into the chapel’s interior, and the light changes with the weather and time of day.

Additional light is supplied by a series of ground-recessed LED lamps set between the arches within the 42mm-thick larch wood planks that make up the floorboards. The lamps are powered by a photovoltaic system and create a warming mood in winter or cloudy weather, making the chapel stand out as a beacon against the dark.

The interior furniture is simple, consisting only of three simple wooden benches and three altar tables, which can be used for funeral services.

The entrance portal opens outwards, so that on warm days the doors can be pushed open and the forecourt integrated into the chapel. The doors are coated with 2mm copper sheet plates that are bright and shiny now, but will darken with verdigris over time. The weathering of the facade is a deliberate process that addresses the issue of time and change, which is inescapable in a cemetery location.

The forecourt echoes exactly the shape of the chapel and is intended as a transition between the forest and the devotional space. Fragmented plates of pale porphyry are laid in light trass mortar. Inside and outside these bands, dark basalt chips are compacted to form a contrasting ground that rises up into the natural slope of the site at the edges. Here blocks of Bamberg sandstone serve as seats for those who arrive when the chapel is full, or who wish a contemplative space outside the chapel or its opening hours.

Small chapel, big impact

The Chapel Ruhewald Schloß Tambach fuses high concepts and sophisticated materials in its design, and yet it is a very gentle, welcoming building that perfectly suits its purpose: small-scaled enough to comfort the people who visit it, soaring enough in its form to evoke the divine.

Timber is an integral part of the building’s success, both in its engineering strength and in its warmly welcoming natural qualities. There is a palpable reassurance to buildings made with wood, especially those used for religious purposes; regardless of your spiritual beliefs, the ongoing cycle of nature is always close in a timber structure.

As is often the case with engineered timbers, the build was a quick one. Planning commenced in April 2017 and the building was completed in August of this year.

Although the architectural awards season has not yet caught up with the chapel, it’s already featured on many of the year’s best sacred buildings lists and has attracted an enthusiastic following among designers and architects, as well as Instagrammers.

Religious architecture is too often overlooked, but it is one area in which building designers and architects are creating truly beautiful solutions. It inspires a deep thoughtfulness that can be lacking in other structures, and demands excellence, even though budgets are often shrinking with congregation sizes.

Because these buildings are designed to last for many decades and to be part of key life moments for many people, they require a quality of material and level of finish that timber is exceptionally well placed to provide. And for the inevitable secular participants at such events, timber is vastly more inviting than the granite and marble familiar to older religious buildings.

The extraordinary atmosphere of this chapel owes everything to the relationship between its timbers and the woods beyond. The views directed outwards and upwards create an interplay between the human and divine scales that adds to the sacral sense of the building.

With many Australian churches looking to downsize their properties and a push for more sustainable cemeteries in this country, this is an area where our leading designers and suppliers should be investigating the prospect of local opportunities.

For more, visit www.sacher-locicero.com, www.mm-holz.com, saint-gobain-glass.com, www.schindelzentrum.de, glasmarte.at/en or ruhewald.de

Photo by Sebastian Kolm, courtesy sacher.locicero.architects