It might be difficult for some to imagine that the architect of the pagoda-like Laboratorios Jorba outside Madrid was an accomplished classicist, but, like many modern architects, Miguel Fisac began his career with more traditional works. His very first commission as an individual was to design a church for Spain’s Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Higher Council of Scientific Research). The CISC had only been founded in 1939 and was originally housed in existing structures around Madrid. The Church of the Holy Spirit (constructed 1942–1947) was the first newly built structure for the research council, and the fact that it was an ecclesiastic building “eloquently expresses the spirit of commitment between religion and science that animated the new project” (according to the Fundacion Fisac). Around the corner from the Church of the Holy Spirit, the main headquarters of the CISC was designed by Fisac.
The church was erected on the site of the auditorium of the adjacent Colegio Nacional Ramiro de Maeztu, and the architect incorporated the severe rationalist façade of the pre-existing structure into his plans for the chapel. Fisac also updated the building next door, which came to house the Goerres Hispano-German Library.
The style is an intriguing combination of a modern rationalist exterior informed by tradition with an interior in a highly (but skillfully) pared-down classical interior. Spain was not a rich country at the time, its destructive civil war having only ended a few years previous. As iron was expensive, the nave was topped in concrete vaultwork, and the bulk of the interior decoration is not architectural, but artistic: the nave and sanctuary paintings are by the painter Ramón Stolz.
While I admire the overall form of the building, the sanctuary is a disappointment. In the country that produced the extraordinary reredos of Toledo, Fisac’s altar here proves a dull and unexuberant design. Still, given the abominations of later ecclesiastical architeture, perhaps one should appreciate its sobriety. The red marble of the sanctuary at least contrasts with the grey of the nave, and appropriately draws the attention of the faithful to the altar where the mystery of the Eucharist is enacted.
Overall, however, Fisac’s Church of the Holy Spirit is a success. Simple, without being boring, it maintains an elegant respect for tradition while expressing a functional modernity appropriate for the age. A fitting example of “the other modern” in twentieth-century architecture.