Of Glass and Warmth and Wood
Contrary to what one might expect, the warm heart of this sanctuary was not the chapel's original concept. "This building was designed from the outside in," says Soranno. "Context was a strong driver in how we looked at the exterior."
Manifesting her insight into the nature of contemporary worship in a building that also speaks to an existing group of austere, modernist campus buildings, presented the architect with her greatest challenge.
In response to this challenge, the Bigelow Chapel separates its interior and exterior forms: a visitor may walk all around the strictly geometrical building, and still perhaps have only a glimmering as to what awaits inside.
In this separation, the chapel becomes an essay on one of architecture's fundamental expressions: the creation of inner and outer realms a concept well-suited to spiritual contemplation.
Evolution of the Design Concept
When early sketch models showed Soranno's inclination toward expressive and curvilinear forms generating buildings disconnected from the fabric of the campus, the building was conceived as a "cradle of light," with a rectilinear geometry responding to its surroundings.
A play of horizontal and vertical planes expresses the concept most clearly in the west facade. Suspended glass fins translucent, ethereal ribs along the sanctuary mimic the neighboring buildings' vertical brick planes. The narthex roof shoots out into space in a 20-foot (6.1-meter) cantilever, and forty-foot- (12.2-meter-) high twin concrete walls define an elegant "bell tower", a narrow slot of space housing early 20th-century chimes.
But when the designers turned their attention inside, the rectilinear language felt cold and harsh, not at all what they wanted to express. How, then, to create an inner experience of intimacy and light?
Soranno's response came first as a form: a gestural sketch of a shell in which she recognized the sense of wrapping, engulfing light that she wanted to achieve. In stunning contrast to the building's exterior, the interior gives free rein to the gesture in sweeping curves of wafer-thin quilted maple. Light glows through the maple, and shimmers across it. The curves are held away from the structure, creating an interstitial space of stillness, light, and mystery.
The surprise of the interior lends it even greater impact. According to Wilson Yates, retired president of the seminary and the visionary behind this project, it never fails: whether it's one visitor or 20, when they hit that moment on the processional when the interior of the sanctuary is revealed, they stop. "They are so struck by the shape, and the form, and the beauty."
The materiality of that form took considerably longer to emerge. Some two years passed between the "aha!" moment when Soranno idly held a veneer sample in front of her desk lamp, and the "can-do" moment when Wilke Sanderson, custom manufacturers of architectural millwork, satisfied themselves they had developed a product that could meet the demands of this application.
The panels are created from a single big-leaf maple, harvested in the Pacific Northwest and shipped to Germany, where it was sourced by a veneer broker searching on behalf of HGA.
This log, rare in that quilted maple is something of a mysterious phenomenon to begin with not all big leaf maples are quilted, and what causes the pillowy quilting isn't perfectly understood and rare in having yield enough to meet the project's needs, was then peeled in Germany and shipped to Indiana, where it was cut into veneer strips 1/32 inches (0.8-millimeters) thick.
Wilke Sanderson, after considerable experimentation, laminated each side of the panels with 1/8-inch (3.2-millimeter) nonreflective acrylic to create a panel that would respond to changing temperatures without warping or cracking. The light filtering through the panels is rich, warm, and intriguing. The forms are simultaneously magnificent and intimate.
Because the forms are fluid, like swathes of fabric billowing in a gust of wind, their stillness implies a moment of time stretched between one heartbeat and the next, in which there is, for now, peace.
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Katharine Logan designs and writes to further a more meaningful and sustainable built environment.