A few years ago, the MacKenzie Art Gallery presented a retrospective exhibition showcasing the work of former Regina architect Clifford Wiens. A contemporary of the Regina Five group of abstract painters, Wiens was a strong proponent of modernist architecture in the city. Some of his award-winning designs include the University of Regina Heating and Cooling plant (built in 1968), a studio for Lumsden sculptor John Nugent (1960) and the CBC Broadcast Centre (1983).
Another acclaimed design by him is a summer chapel at Silton, SK. (pictured). Writing in Western Living in 2008, here’s how Vancouver-based architecture critic Trevor Boddy described the chapel:
A 20-minute drive up the [Qu’Appelle] valley is another Wiens stunner, the Silton Summer Chapel (1969), a seasonal Roman Catholic Church for cottagers on Long Lake. “Half the art of architecture is knowing the site,” says the now Vancouver-based Wiens, still actively designing at age 82. Part of Silton Chapel’s drama and authority is arriving through the glade to encounter architecture at its most primal: a pyramidal roof set on four massive glulam (glue-laminated timber) beams, which are held up on gruff concrete pillars, a raw boulder underneath serving as an altar but no walls at all. A small cast-concrete pillbox provides a vestiary, while the baptismal fount is filled with water running off the cedar-shaked roof down an iron chain serving as improvised drainpipe.
Wiens’s design appeals whether one is pagan (natural vistas provide the “stained glass” for worshippers on the bench-pews), Roman Catholic (this is a fully consecrated church), aesthete (the design is a chef d’oeuvre of minimalism) or engineer (with a steel vertical tie-rod at centre, the foursquare roof acts structurally as an innovative space frame). Seldom has Mies van der Rohe’s dictum of “less is more” resonated as forcefully as here–architecture reduced to its essence, and in so doing, amplified cosmically.
Unfortunately, it seems that the chapel has fallen on hard times and rumours are circulating that Church authorities are contemplating demolishing the chapel. That would be a huge hit to the inventory of heritage architecture in Saskatchewan. Again, unfortunately, from research and interviews I’ve conducted on the issue of heritage with municipal and provincial officials, designation of a property as a heritage site is largely at the discretion of the owner and little latitude exists to proactively preserve heritage properties otherwise.
Designating a property as a heritage site does place restrictions on the owner’s ability to alter it, in that they are expected to honour the commitment they’ve made to preserve the property. But public funds can be accessed to help the owner restore and maintain their heritage property. Wouldn’t it be great if the Church would opt for that over demolition?