A Congregation of Talent
In California's Orange County, AC Martin Partners and four collaborating artists lift Wallace All Faiths Chapel to new spiritual heights.
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 8/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
"In ecclesiastical design, architecture orchestrates a path from the material to the spiritual," proclaims architect David Martin, the third-generation principal of AC Martin Partners. "Along the way, the architect choreographs events to generate excitement." And nowhere have Martin's choreographic talents come more into play than in directing the work of four artists at Wallace All Faiths Chapel.
The main religious building at Chapman University, a small private college in City of Orange, California, the interdenominational chapel is his fifth building on campus and his fourth religious project overall. (His three previous ones are Roman Catholic churches in Los Angeles.) Because this new effort could not draw on iconography specific to any faith or sect, Martin opted for artistic elements that evoke earth, water, and light-teaming up with Chapman professor Richard Turner, a sculptor himself, to select a handful of Southern California artists to collaborate on the chapel's interior and exterior. After reviewing portfolios, Martin and Turner chose installation artist, painter, and sculptor Lita Albuquerque, landscape artist and architect Susan Narduli, sculptor Norie Sato, and marquetry master William Tunberg. "An artist can always bring something an architect can't," says Martin, who has also worked with Robert Rauschenberg and Mark di Suvero.
From the exterior, the chapel first appears typically collegiate, a double-height 10,500-square-foot brick box with a floating zinc roof. Yet subtle modernist details animate the building. Four colors of brick, installed in two patterns, produce stripes encircling the structure, and the front facade's block of six small square windows glows red at night.
A minaretlike tower signals the start of the spiritual journey, beckoning worshippers to the garden of grass plantings and boulders that Narduli massed beneath the red windows. The approach to the chapel is via a colonnade that shelters the first part of Albuquerque's Stellar Score trinity-a 60-foot-long stretch of concrete pavement incised with gold-leafed musical notes. This procession terminates at Sato's double doors, a complex composition of bead-blasted stainless steel framing glass panels. She laminated the clear glass with bronze cut by water jet to form a round opening of calligraphic fluidity. "It's a symbol of unbroken connection, community, and faith," she explains.
The doors swing out to reveal the continuation of Albuquerque's Stellar Score, this time with literary quotes etched ' and gold-leafed in a trough of glass tiles running the length of the limestone-floored corridor. This long space is alive with architectural and artistic metaphor. To create a transition from the material to the spiritual, for example, Martin progressively cut down on outside views by laminating the windows with increasingly opaque midnight-blue rice paper.
Martin also introduces the water element here, both figuratively and literally. The trough tiles are laminated with photos of water. And a fountain, actually the conclusion of Stellar Score, appears outside the large square window at the end of the corridor; Albuquerque composed this final piece of a gold-leaf disk cantilevered from a curved copper-clad wall.
To the left of the vestibule's fountain window is the entrance to the worship room, awe-inspiring in its light and scale-the 4,900-square-foot space seats 250 in Peter Danko's curvy maple stacking chairs, arranged in a semicircle facing the altar. For the top of this three-tiered round oak dais, Martin designed a rug with blue-and-cream celestial motifs and an altar table of ebony over aluminum. Four companion chairs, for celebrants, combine Martin's ebony with Tunberg's marquetry renditions of Hubble Space Telescope images.
Above hangs Turner's Equinox Sunrise, a grid of gold-anodized aluminum tubing that gleams in sunlight from the clerestory around the worship room's 40-foot ceiling. For added dazzle, Sato installed iridescent glass panels in front of the narrow 30-foot-tall windows that mark each corner. But the real light show projects from 20 apertures Martin punched in the 10-foot-thick walls, finished in mottled plaster. (What appears to be decorative scoring is actually seismic joint channels.) Placed to accommodate X bracing, the asymmetrically scattered windows are fitted with glass in different colors for each elevation. Blue is north, red south, green east, and yellow west.
The north wall's single low window affords a view of Narduli's Garden of the Senses. With a deciduous maple, fragrant herbs, and glowing onyx benches, the setting celebrates life. She gives death its due next door, in an open-air columbarium enclosed by blue marble, to be etched with names of deceased alumni and faculty.
If the site feels reminiscent of Nôtre Dame-du-Haut, Le Corbusier's 1955 chapel in Ronchamp, France, that's no accident. Call it divine inspiration.