The Bells of Saint Giovanni Bosco

25 Jul, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

American-Italian architect duo raises a bell tower in Belluno, Italy.

John Helm and Luisa Melacini, the founding principals of Helm & Melacini Architects, divide their time between two continents. In California, they keep an office in Solana Beach, about a half-hour’s drive from San Diego. But lately they’ve been basking under the Italian sun, working from their office in Belluno, 50 miles north of Venice. On Sundays, stepping away from their Outlook calendar, the architect pair goes to the nearby San Giovanni Bosco church. The house of worship lacks but one quintessential detail -- a bell tower.

Last year, under the sponsorship of the Diocese of the Catholic Church in Belluno, the church held a design competition called “un campanile per la chiesa di San Giovanni Bosco (a bell tower for the church of Saint Giovanni).” Already patrons of the church, Helm and Melacini were inspired to put their skills to use. Their entry, conceived in Nemetschek’s Vectorworks Architect software, was selected as the winning design (as reported in Cadalyst Daily newsletter, July 13.)

One-Stop CAD Shop
“CAD shouldn’t be an entity unto itself; it should just be a tool for the architect,” Helm noted. “That has always been my attitude towards CAD.” He maintains that CAD drafting skills -- the ability to manipulate a complex software system to produce a 3D model -- are secondary to the skills to design.

“We use Vectorworks like a one-stop program,” he said. “We used it for everything, from drafting to presentation.” In the San Giovanni Bosco bell tower project, Helm and Melacini even used the software for layout and composition of the final competition submission package. “We used it to position text and images, like you might with Adobe Pagemaker, for example,” he said, acknowledging that they may be “pushing the limits of the software a bit.” For additional touchups on the graphics, they sometimes turn to Photoshop.

“As an architect, I want to concentrate on architecture,” he explained. “I don’t want to have to learn five different software programs to do my work.”

Sound Engineering
Defined by three parallel walls of slightly different heights and curvatures, their bell tower was a symbolic reminder of the Holy Trinity, Helm explained. “The bells are mounted between two of the walls,” he said. “So initially, there were some concerns about how the bells’ sound would be dispersed and about the possible effects of the reverberation.”

During the project, the architects consulted with three different acoustics specialists -- two Italians and one American -- to make sure the structure wouldn’t compromise the peals of the bells. The American architectural acoustics expert, David Lubman, discovered through an Internet search, provided critical input from across the Atlantic.

“We sent him drawings of the project in PDF,” Helm said. “He liked the concave walls but suggested possibly cutting an opening in one of the solid walls.” Similarly, the architects were able to obtain estimates of the construction costs by sharing PDF elevation and plan views with the contractors and structural steel engineers.

John Helm and Luisa Melacini, the founding principals of Helm & Melacini Architects, conceived a new bell tower for the San Giovanni Bosco church in Belluno, Italy.
The architects were able to communicate their visions to the sound engineers and the structural steel engineers through exported PDF elevation and plan views.

Nemetschek’s partnership with Adobe, announced in January, resulted in a tighter integration between Vectorworks Architect and Adobe PDF. The announcement promises, “Users can create Adobe PDF files from within Vectorworks and import PDF files into Vectorworks v12.5. These PDF files feature intelligent functions such as layers, scale information, and searchable text.”

Blending the New and the Old
Originally designed by the Italian architect Alpago Novello, the existing church stands on a raised platform surrounded by a few trees. “[Novello’s design] uses various different elements: stained glasses, steel, stone, and concrete. There are a lot of stone works that involved different types of stones,” Helm observed. In conceiving their bell tower, Helm and Melacini tried to walk a fine line between two seemingly contradictory objectives: “avoid adding to the complexity of what is already there, but, at the same time, unify the different properties.”

To convey the visual harmony they were striving for, Helm and Melacini took pictures of the church’s facade, imported some of them into Vectorworks Architect’s library as textures, and applied them to the design.

A few months after the competition, the 3D model came in handy when Helm and Melacini needed to convince the local officials that the new bell tower would not obstruct the street view of the existing arch. “We exported several views of the model from various angles,” Helm said. “We showed them to the city authorities to let them know the bell tower won’t visually obscure the arch.”

The exported perspective view convinced the city authorities that the new bell tower wouldn’t be a visual obstruction to the arch from the existing church.

Personal Props and Remote Printing
Something Helm and Melacini like to do with their projects is to make themselves part of the final rendering. They do it by picturing themselves against a solid background, then isolating their image, and saving the file into Vectorworks’ Props library. When inserted into the 3D scene, the prop becomes part of the model’s virtual surrounding.

“Unlike a 3D object, [the props] don’t take up a lot of storage space,” Helm noted. “But the neat thing is, when you rotate the model, they rotate with it.”

Lookcarefully to find the architects -- the couple in a gray shirt and a white shirt -- at the center of the rendering as one of the props.

Though Helm and Melacini have been in Italy for the most part, some of their U.S. clients might hardly detect their absence. They set up their U.S. phone number so that calls can be forwarded to wherever they are via the Web. To deliver the construction drawings, they use Oce Plan Center, an online file storage platform and virtual plan room. For printing, they use Universal Reprographics, which has a location on Melrose Avenue in Encinitas, California.

“It’s amazing,” Helm exclaimed. “I select a printer that shows up within Vectorworks, I hit print, and within a matter of hours, the client can go pick it up or we can have it delivered to their door.”

The Bell Tower Slowly Rises
Asked to predict when construction might be complete, Helm chuckled. “If this were California, I’d say it should be up in spring,” he said, before adding, “but this is Italy.”

John Helm and Luisa Melacini maintain two blogs about their Italian days. Architecture-related topics are filed under “Design, Architecture, Interiors, Remodels, Additions.” Their personal experiences are chronicled in “Expat American & Italian, Family Living in Italy, with Children.” John is licensed as an architect in California and Oregon and Luisa in Italy.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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