Encounters with the divine

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Words:
Michèle Woodger

What makes a chapel? Michèle Woodger examines 14 examples that help answer that question

Peter Zumthor: Bruder Klaus Kapelle.
Peter Zumthor: Bruder Klaus Kapelle. Credit: KlausMJan / Adobe stock photo

Ten chapels, by high-profile architects, comprised the Vatican’s first ever Venice Bienniale pavilion this year. Their inspiration was Erik Gunnar Asplund’s 1920s Woodland Chapel. Set amid evergreen trees, this modest building blends classicism with Swedish vernacular. In curator Francesco Dal Co’s words, it ‘defines the chapel as a place of orientation, encounter and meditation.’

The new designs are naturally eclectic: Foster + Partners offers a timber, tent-like structure while Carla Juaçaba presents a sparse arrangement of four steel beams on seven pieces of concrete, which disappears into the greenery. Edouardo Souto de Moura’s offering, entitled ‘No, it is not’, claims not to be a chapel. Yet they all share the same intent. In the curators’ words, they are ‘for all who wish to rediscover beauty, silence, the interior and transcendent voices.’

What it meant by transcendence? It is almost impossible to articulate. The experience of being outside oneself, when intellectual reasoning, emotional feeling and physical sensation collide – this is perhaps the closest we can get to defining it.

Architecture materially affects the senses with its manipulation of light, texture, temperature, sound, and even smell – its physical building blocks provoke intangible responses. ‘When a work is so perfect, when it is at its maximum intensity, it radiates,’ Le Corbusier says. The architect who gave us Notre Dame du Haut had ‘never been conscious of the miracle of faith’. But in an interview with Architecture Religieuse in 1961, he claimed instead to have experienced l’espace indicible: the phenomenon of ineffable space. This is probably the closest a non-believer can get to the divine.

  • The cast concrete shell of Steyn Studio’s Bosjes Chapel in Witzenberg Municipality, South Africa.
    The cast concrete shell of Steyn Studio’s Bosjes Chapel in Witzenberg Municipality, South Africa. Credit: Adam Letch
  • The roof of the Bosjes Chapel refers to a line from Psalms about wings, which was quoted in the brief.
    The roof of the Bosjes Chapel refers to a line from Psalms about wings, which was quoted in the brief. Credit: Adam Letch
  • Window becomes crucifix on Bosjes Chapel.
    Window becomes crucifix on Bosjes Chapel. Credit: Adam Letch
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Perhaps the most remarkable chapel of recent years is Peter Zumthor’s 2007 Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Germany, a wigwam of trees encased in thick concrete resembling a menhir-like block. The concrete set and the wigwam was burnt, hollowing out the interior and leaving a dark, charred, textured surface. The ceiling tapers towards an aperture in the roof, exposing visitors to the weather. Sunlight through this oculus creates a starburst, recalling a vision that hermit-saint Niklaus von Flüe (Bruder Klaus) was said to have experienced in the womb. At night one sees the stars. The chapel has sparse furnishings, a lead floor and no modern amenities. Zumthor said at the time: ‘To me, buildings can have a beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence, and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well; a building that is being itself, being a building, not representing anything, just being.’

Zumthor, Le Corbusier, Eero Saarinen, Jørn Utzon, Tadao Ando and innumerable other architects have mastered the use of light to breathtaking effect. But who better understands the elusive, ephemeral qualities of light than the artist?

Now New York artist Ellsworth Kelly joins Chagall, Matisse and Rothko. Before his death in 2015, Kelly, known for minimalist, abstract works such as Yellow Curve (Tate Gallery) gifted the concepts for an unrealised, secular, chapel-like space to the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Austin. The monumental work was completed this year thanks to the input of Texas-based Overland Architects.

James Lancaster and Rick Archer’s team faced unique challenges. Every aesthetic decision had to be sanctioned by Kelly (before he passed away) as well as fulfilling the requirements for viable and safe construction.

  • Austin, the secular chapel designed by Ellsworth Kelly and completed this year by Overland Architects. Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.
    Austin, the secular chapel designed by Ellsworth Kelly and completed this year by Overland Architects. Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Credit: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin Ellsworth
  • Interior of Ellsworth Kelly’s, Austin, facing south.
    Interior of Ellsworth Kelly’s, Austin, facing south. Credit: Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin Ellsworth
  • Looking west at Ellsworth Kelly, Austin towards the black and white marble panels.
    Looking west at Ellsworth Kelly, Austin towards the black and white marble panels. Credit: Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin Ellsworth
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Kelly’s secular chapel draws heavily on Christian traditions. It is a limestone, barrel-vaulted, cruciform building. A redwood ‘Totem’ form becomes an altar while on the walls are abstract marble Stations of the Cross. Three facades have coloured glass windows, inspired by Chartres Cathedral in France, titled Colour Grid, Starburst and Tumbling Squares.

Kelly was preoccupied with reducing colour to its essential elements. The architects – and the glass manufacturers – had not only to match pigments to Kelly’s palette, but also ensure that the filtered light appeared faithful to the artist’s vision in situ. These numinous coloured squares now illuminate the stark walls of the cavernous interior, contrasting dramatically with black granite floors.

Kelly wants you to ‘rest your eyes, rest your mind’ in his building. In Matisse’s Chapel du Rosaire, Vence, leafy patterns from the windows dance about, as if celebrating the artist’s second chance at life. Austin, Kelly’s swansong, is a place of ‘calm, quiet joy’ says Lancaster. ‘No matter what is going on in your life, when you step inside, you experience joy.’

An utterly different project is the multiple award-winning Winton Chapel at the University of Winchester, by Design Engine. The original 1880s Gothic Revival building was restored, and a new extension added to the north side. The tiny addition – aptly named the Anchorage – is constrained on all sides by existing buildings, but its intelligent and unexpected design makes it shine.

The brief asked for ‘a jewel in the heart of the campus’. Taking this literally, Design Engine looked to medieval reliquary boxes: ornate, pitched-roof caskets containing sacred relics. Architects David Gausden and Tamsin Thomas observe that ‘texture is an often overlooked quality’. Not so here, where every surface has been carefully considered: oak floors, ergonomic wooden door handles, a restored Arts and Crafts tiled frieze. A new baptismal font and altar are centrally aligned and now appear solidly embedded into the fabric: they are of locally sourced Purbeck limestone, fossils still apparent. The altar comprises seven blocks, each block representing a 25-year period of the institution’s 175-year history. Its double elliptical section suggests a welcoming gesture or the outstretched branches of a tree. Its vertical surfaces are textured and ridged whereas the top is smooth and reflective. The font’s cylindrical plinth is topped with a highly polished stainless steel basin, a section of a sphere. The water inside disperses light across the ceiling, referring to the ‘light of the world’. Such narratives are important to the practice; to them, architecture involves building stories.

Externally, the extension is clad in anodised aluminium panels, which gleam with a gold finish in sunlight. At night, light glows through the diaphanous outer skin through a coloured glass cross-shaped window, to stark effect.

  • Double elliptical section of the altar at Winton Chapel as seen over the Purbeck limestone font.
    Double elliptical section of the altar at Winton Chapel as seen over the Purbeck limestone font. Credit: Jim Stephenson
  • Winton Chapel at the University of Winchester by Design Engine takes the request for a jewel in the heart of the campus literally with an anodised aluminium extension.
    Winton Chapel at the University of Winchester by Design Engine takes the request for a jewel in the heart of the campus literally with an anodised aluminium extension. Credit: Jim Stephenson
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The panels are perforated with intricate tracery, an almost Moorish pattern derived from the chapel’s existing windows. Gausden speaks of ‘discovering hidden patterns and geometries’ in the research process. The site’s hilly topography means that the chapel is approached and seen from unusual angles, including from above. A pitched roof mirrors that of the existing building but twists due to an asymmetrical plan form, creating playful geometries with the building’s planes. This chapel is a place of unexpected encounter.

From an anchorite’s cell to the vast expanse of the South African Western Cape. The Bosjes chapel, by Coetzee Steyn of London-based Steyn Studio, won the Civic Trust regional award last year. This apparently weightless chapel, consisting of a slim concrete cast shell and a self-supporting roof, undulates dramatically, falling and rising in peaks to mirror the forms of the distant mountains. The chapel is set within a vineyard and pomegranate orchard (the masterplan also contains a new restaurant and luxury accommodation).

This sculptural chapel is both striking and serene; surrounded by a calm pool, it appears to float on the water’s surface. Reflections continue indoors with a polished terrazzo floor, emphasising the contrasts of light and shadow of whitewashed ceiling’s curves.

The design is inspired by local historic Cape Dutch gables as well as simple 19th century Moravian mission stations. The plan is simple and rectangular, allowing the inside to function as an assembly space. Furnishings are simple and neutral – wood and brass – to emphasise the spectacular views.

The curvilinear roof suggests graceful movement, like a flock of migrating birds. The brief referred to Psalm 36:7: ‘How precious, O God, is your constant love! We find protection under the shadow of your wings.’

In 2013 Pope Francis wrote: ‘We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty.’ Opportunities to design sacred spaces do not come around often. When they do, they afford the architect a unique and exciting challenge to express, physically, ineffable ideas and emotions. Of course, such projects are often instigated by private clients with a bold vision, and the budget and the business incentive to take creative risks. But when the fates align, architects have the potential to produce their most challenging, awe-inspiring and career-defining work, while visitors may experience new, unexpected encounters with the divine.