Bob Borson has inspired me yet again. After reading his post highlighting some cathedrals around the world, I began recounting the various smaller churches and chapels that had made an impression on me. I decided to do a complimentary post highlighting a few of the smaller (and perhaps lesser known) chapels around the world that are worth seeing. Some I have visited, some I have on my archi-travels list. I focused the first half on chapels in the US, and the other half from around the world. Just in time for Easter – Enjoy!
1. St. Basil’s Chapel on the campus of St. Thomas University, Houston Texas. Designed by Philip Johnson.
The chapel is named after St. Basil the Great, a 4th century bishop from Caesarea in Pontus (what is now Turkey). This small chapel serves as an anchor on the university’s academic mall axis, with the campus library at the opposite end; an interplay between faith and reason. It is a white cube bisected by a large black granite plane and topped with a golden dome. The dome is also bisected by the planar wall, which allows for clerestory lighting within the dome itself. The entrance to the chapel is a simple cut in the cube, with the facade ‘peeled’ back to form an opening much like a tent flap. The tent is representative of the opening of the Tent of Meeting in the Old Testament. Inside the chapel, just below the cross window (seen on the wall facing the prayer garden with labyrinth) there are carvings in the wall depicting the stations of the cross.
This is a hometown favorite that I visit several times a year simply to enjoy the beauty of it. I highly recommend paying a visit, and while you’re in the area, you can easily walk to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel (#2 below), the Rothko Chapel, and the Menil.
2. Byzantine Fresco Chapel, The Menil Collection, Houston Texas. Designed by Francois de Menil.
Dominique de Menil rescued this group of Byzantine frescoes that had been looted from a small chapel in Cyprus. They are the only intact Byzantine frescoes of this size and importance in the entire western hemisphere. Dominique’s son, Francois, designed the chapel to house the frescoes at the request of his mother. She envisioned a space that was intimate and consecrated; a place that would not rob the frescoes of their spiritual importance. The design is a series of thin glass ‘walls’ that create a traditional chapel spatial relationship housed within a larger box. At the edges of the box, light pours in from above during the day.
3. Thorncrown Chapel, Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Designed by E. Fay Jones.
Jim Reed owned a piece of property that overlooked the Ozarks. Passers-by would often stop to take in the vistas from his property, so Jim decided to build a chapel on his property to share with the world. Halfway through the project, funds ran out; Jim prayed that his dream would come to fruition and in the next few days, all of the funding was in. The towering glass chapel is enclosed with glass on all sides, giving sweeping views in all directions. The chapel is now coupled with a larger worship space on the grounds and can accommodate visitors by the bus load.
4. United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Designed by SOM.
This interfaith chapel has separate worship spaces for many faiths: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist. Each space has its own entrance, allowing simultaneous worship by many faiths. The chapel was the most controversial aspect of the academy’s design. Walter Netsch, the lead designer, was even prepared to abandon the design at one point. Thank goodness, he didn’t. The chapel’s mission is “To inspire men and women to become leaders of character through spiritual formation”. If this isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what is.
5. MIT Chapel, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Designed by Eero Saarinen.
This mid-century modern chapel is a small, windowless brick cylinder surrounded by a moat. The brick, which is supported at the bottom by a series of small arches, allows light to reflect up from the moat and into the interior. A hanging metal sculpture reflects light from above the altar. The chapel is set among a grove of birch trees and flanked by a wall to give an even backdrop and prevent noise from filtering into the multi-faith chapel.
6. Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Mechernich, Germany. Designed by Peter Zumthor.
This small concrete chapel dedicated to the patron saint of Switzerland (Bruder Klaus) was built by local farmers. The logs used to create the form work were burned away, leaving a charred, undulating interior surface that opens to a single teardrop oculus. There are drawings of the chapel here.
7. Luce Memorial Chapel, Tunghai University, Taiwan. Designed by Chen Chi-Kwan and I.M. Pei.
This concrete hyperbolic paraboloid chapel seems simple from the exterior, but once inside the space, the structure is revealed. Built to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, the reinforced concrete planes thicken at the base. The planes are connected by a ridge beam at the top, where light spills through between connections. The exterior is clad with glazed golden tiles.
8. Meditation Space at UNESCO, Paris, France. Designed by Tadao Ando.
Most people are familiar with Ando’s Church of the Light, but are you aware of this small meditation space in Paris? UNESCO is probably not at the top of sight-seeing lists while in Paris, but it is definitely worth a stop. It was designed for the 50th anniversary of UNESCO, and is a space dedicated for praying for world peace. It has a simplicity of form and material that are appropriate for its small stature. The concrete cylinder is 6 meters tall and wide, with a concrete ceiling that allows light to spill in from above as it appears to float above the room. A ramp leads visitors across a small water feature filled with stones from Hiroshima. After pausing inside, visitors exit opposite the opening they came through and into the rest of the UNESCO grounds.
9. Jubilee Church, Rome, Italy. Designed by Richard Meier.
This is another example of a great chapel that is easily bypassed on an overbooked trip to a big city. Overwhelmed with the abundance of beautiful classical churches throughout Rome (none greater than the imposing St. Peter’s Basilica), it is easy to forget that this small chapel is only a few miles outside of the city. (I didn’t have room to visit during my last trip)
This competition winning design is in the suburb of Tor Tre Teste, which is full of low and middle income housing. The church is comprised of a large sanctuary, a small day chapel and a community center. The three sweeping concrete ‘sails’ hint at the trinity while glass fills the gaps and allows natural light to penetrate from every side. Like so many churches, Meier’s design was inspired by light. Read more about his intentions here.
10. St. Henry’s Ecumenical Art Chapel, Island of Hervensalo (near Turku), Finland. Designed by Sanaksenaho Architects.
(Photo by Jussi Tiainen via DailyTonic)
Placed at the top of a small hill, this copper-clad pine structure blends nicely with the forested landscape. Both materials will develop a natural patina over time. Visitors arrive through an art gallery, and progress into the main chapel space that is illuminated with natural light that seeps in near the altar wall.
These chapels are all derived from spiritual or religious principles, or from the necessity of structural form. Each one focuses on light, shadow and experience both within and without. Decoration and ornamentation are minimal, allowing the forms and volumes to speak to the visitor in a simple straightforward way. In these instances, I would say that less really is more.
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