Sunday, February 9, 2014


I love postmodern architecture. I also love buildings with huge amounts of wood and glass, nestled in alpine forests.

Thus, I love Thorncrown Chapel, a small nondenominational Christian house of worship located in the Ozark Mountains near Eureka Springs, Arkansas (on the border with Missouri).

The structure is just 48 feet high, 24 feet wide, and 60 feet long. It has 425 windows and 6,000 square feet of glass, and just 11 pews. Constructed in 1980 at a cost of $200,000 ($565,000 in 2013 dollars), the Architecture Institute of America (AIA) declared it the fourth-most influential building of the 20th century. (It is widely imitated.) It also won the AIA's Design of the Year Award for 1981 and the AIA's Design of the Decade Award for the 1980s. In 2000, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Buildings less than 50 years old can only be listed on the Register if they are of exceptional significance, as Thorncrown is.

Northwestern Arkansas is one of the most religious sections of the United States. Branson, Missouri -- described by Bart Simpson as "Las Vegas if it were run by Ned Flanders" -- is close by. So is Bentonville, the home of the ultra-conservative company Wal-Mart. Retired schoolteacher Jim Reed bought the land on which Thorncrown was built as a vacation home for him and his wife. But after friends kept telling him how peaceful and spiritual the place was, he resolved to build a chapel there.

Reed commissioned E. Fay Jones, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and chairman of the Department of Architecture at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville (only a few miles from Eureka Springs), to design the chapel. Jones' design was by La Sainte-Chapelle (right), the Rayonnant Gothic chapel on the Île de la Cité in Paris, France.

Gothic architecture utilized high, vaulted ceilings; pointed arches; and flying buttresses to create a columnless interior space. Verticality and light are important aspects of Gothic architecture. Rayonnant Gothic buildings are a particular style of French Gothic architecture which de-emphasize vast, overpowering spaces in favor of more personal structures. Rayonnant Gothic buildings also emphasize two-dimensional space and repetition in patterns. Sainte-Chapelle represents the height of the Rayonnant Gothic motif. Completed in 1248 CE, it is noted for its brightly lit stained glass windows, its delicate gilded stonework, and its bright blue painted ceiling with white stars.

Jones decided on a blend of stone and wood for Thorncrown that he called "Ozark Gothic". He wanted to emphasize verticality, weightlessness, and light, but he wanted to do so using elements (wood, stone, earth) native to the area.

Reed put $100,000 of his own money into the construction of the chapel. But Fay's design needed $200,000 to build. Reed ordered construction to begin, but when funds ran out the construction ended -- and the chapel sat half-finished. Finally, a woman in Illinois loaned Reed the money needed to finish the chapel.

Thorncrown is open year-round, and more than 300 weddings a year are held there (which is largely how it pays its way).

The vertical and diagonal trusses are made from Arkansas pine. Because the existing trees in the area could not be harmed or removed (the site had to be maintained in its original condition), the trusses were cut to a size that could be carried through the trees. The lengthier trusses were assembled on-site. A gray stain was used to make the wood blend in with the surrounding stone. The chapel is sunk about four feet into the ground to provide the foundation with stability. The retaining walls which form the foundation as well as the floor are made of local flagstone. The walls above the foundation up to the roof are single-pane glass.

Exterior Gothic flying buttresses were replaced by interlocking wooden trusses overhead. Hollow steel joints form cross-braces for the trusses, creating a diamond-shaped pattern. The overall effect is that of tree branches interlocking overhead, or a crown of thorns. The tying-together of the trusses through use of these steel joints permitted the wall columns to be thin and widely spaced. Each end of the chapel to thus is open, focusing attention on the entryway and the altar.

Most of the lighting is natural. The walls, of course, provide most of it. But Jones also built a skylight into the ridge of the roof to provide more dramatic lighting of the trusses. (Initially, the roof skylight was narrow, but Jones altered this design once construction began and he realized just how much light was playing among the trusses.) For nighttime lighting, there are 12 light fixtures on each side wall, attached to the columns. The lights are boxes of oak (with vertical oak lathes to create a sense of movement and verticality). A cross is cut from the center of each fixture, and frosted white glass behind the lathes conceals the light bulb -- permitting the cross to glow. The fixtures also have slits on the sides and an open top. Light plays up the columns as well as along the glass, spraying rays of light everywhere. The interior lighting also creates shadows and bars of light outside the structure, and the illusion of crosses can be see in the fog or against the ground and trees.

Thorncrown has minimal furnishings. There are 11 oak pews on either side of the main aisle, each identical to the other. The pew seats are upholstered in bright blue cloth. An organ sits to the right of the front door. The chapel cross, lectern, and altar railing at the rear of the chapel are made of steel. Usually, gigantic green Boston ferns conceal seating for the pastors and altar boys up front, although wooden screens made of pine lathing can also be used for this purpose.

Frankly, pictures like the one at the top of this post are immensely deceptive. Photoshopping an image so that the colors are oversaturated, the blues too blue, the yellows too golden, the browns too dark... it's just too easy to make any structure like this look good.

It's also too easy to use foreground exaggeration to make it look big. That's what the photo at the top does. Thorncrown is not a massively tall building at all. Foreground exaggeration magnifies its height, fools the eyes into thinking the top is more top-heavy than it really is. It creates a trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") image that makes the eye feel proportion is lost -- and thus the eye dismisses what it's seeing.

It's not the "crown of thorns" roof that I like about Thorncrown. It's the glass walls, the transparency of it, the columnless interior, the way stone and glass and wood come together.

It's like having a combination of Philip Johnson's Glass House (New Canaan, Conn.) and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater (Stewart Township, Fayette County, Penn.).

I love it.


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