Friday, November 14, 2008

St. Benedict's Chapel - A New Church in the Virginia Tidewater

Another classical/traditional architecture firm currently thriving is Franck and Lohsen Architects, based in Washington, D.C. I would go as far as to say they are one of the finest classical firms currently practicing. Unlike many of its competitors, though, it works in a variety of areas--residential, institutional, civic and religious, showing an admirable range and balance in their portfolio.

You may remember Franck and Lohsen from the stellar work they did in conjunction with painter Leonard Porter at the new adoration chapel in Sioux Falls Cathedral which has received some coverage in the Catholic press and in the blogosphere.

They are undertaking or have undertaken a number of ambitious larger church projects, but this smaller, simpler, and quite enchanting design for St. Benedict's Chapel in the Diocese of Richmond, will be of particular interest to our readers due to its small size and modest budget ($1.4 million, which is a shoestring by today's standards). Another interesting detail is that it appears it is intended to house a Latin Mass community, and great care has been taken to ensure the correct sanctuary layout for the traditional liturgy. Ground was broken a few months ago, and it is expected to be complete by the Spring.

The building's vernacular interpretation of the classical is inspired by local precedents, and is uniquely suited to the building's small size. The firm's larger projects use a more formal vocabulary, as is fitting, but here a different approach is quite appropriate to building's scale.

Here are a number of observations written by the project's liturgical consultant, the very talented Dr. Dennis McNamara of Mundelein, who I believe has also played an important role in the Leawood, Kansas project I profiled earlier this week:

General comments on the design: St. Benedict’s Chapel is a modest building with a modest budget, but it has still received the design attention it deserves as a building in which God is glorified and human beings are sanctified. It is recognizably part of the larger architectural tradition of the Church, and in particular refers back to the particular local tradition of the Tidewater area of Virginia in its choice of materials, motifs and local traditions. The continuation of the brick tradition of Virginia is the most obvious connection to the local architectural vernacular, as are the modest but fine details: jack arches of shaped brick over the windows, the shaped bricks in the rose window, shutters, white wooden trim and the tall proportions of the pediment over the front and rear entry doors. These details, while unassuming, give evidence of a high level of design sophistication from the architects, linking this new building with the venerable traditions of the Commonwealth. At the same time, the design presents something entirely new within the established tradition, retaining sound tradition as requested in Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilum, yet breathing new life into the established conventions. In summary, the building “looks like” a church, and moreover, looks like something appropriate to the local church of the Diocese of Richmond, recalling the story of this place.

Front (west) façade: The west elevation presents a relatively simple outline enlivened by modest but important design choices which enrich the façade. The brick vernacular tradition is most evident in the gabled cornice and edges which draw their inspiration from early Virginia ecclesiastical examples like St. Luke’s in the Isle of Wight. The entry is clearly marked by the covered porch, which itself reveals the “naïve” proportions of the tall pediment often manifested in early Virginia architecture.

The façade as a whole gives a suggestion of the traditional triple entry to western church facades, though the side arches are blind, suggesting the possibility of future elaboration with statuary. The rose window, recalling the facade of the Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, brings a great deal of interest to the façade and also reveals the large volume of the interior, preparing the worshipper for the scale and importance of the space inside. Small details, such as the brackets and shaped wooden panels at the ends of the cornices, give the design a modest design sophistication. Interestingly, the west façade prepares the worshipper for his or her eventually approach to the sacraments, as the interior wall of the sanctuary receives a treatment similar to the facade, making the exterior give a foretaste of the room within.

Plan: Because of the limited budget, maximum efficiency was required of minimum square footage. Despite the budget, important decisions about liturgical and paraliturgical activities have been well-made.

The narthex, while modest, nonetheless gives ample room for gathering before and after the liturgy, in a dignified room which allows for a transition from the exterior world to the nave. Bathroom facilities, water fountain, and support rooms are adeptly taken out of the main line of sight while remaining easy to locate and access. The narthex also contains a baptismal font which will also serve as a holy water font, reminding the worshippers of their status as members of the Mystical Body of Christ through baptism. This room not only gives a proper setting of proper scale for the font, it is on axis with the central altar and leads to the altar, a feature recommended by nearly all of the twentieth-century’s liturgical reformers. The narthex leads into a dignified vestibule which gives access to the cry room, itself logically placed in close proximity to the rest rooms.

The area for reconciliation provides for face to face confession, confession behind a screen, confession in a more chapel-like room, as well as smaller rooms approximating the traditional confessionals.

The aisles are ample in proportion given the limited seating of around 300 persons, and provisions are made near the sanctuary for worshippers in wheelchairs and for the turning of coffins at Masses for the Dead.

The seating, being arranged in only fifteen rows, gives every worshipper a clear, intimate, and unblocked view to the liturgical action of the sanctuary.

The central altar remains clearly dominant in its location under the largest arch. The side shrines are placed to be secondary, in smaller arches and set back from the edge of the sanctuary itself, leaving the focus liturgical action of the central altar as primary.

The sacristy and flower room are easily accessible both from the sanctuary itself and one of several exterior entrances. They allow for prayerful preparation for liturgy as well as ample storage. The sacristy provides for a standard sink as well as a sacrarium. The rear exit from the sacristies allows for those charged with building security to exit without passing through the body of the church, and the porch on this exit gives some exterior architectural interest to the passengers approaching the building by car.

The altar, tabernacle and side shrines are currently in possession of the chapel community and are reclaimed from an older structure. As is proper to the liturgical usage of this local community, the tabernacle is fixed on the altar.

Site plan: The church retains the tradition of eastward orientation, departing from true east by only a few degrees. This arrangement allows for worshippers approaching by car to see the rear corner of the building (a longstanding architectural convention extending back to ancient Greece), giving them a clear view of both the rear and side of the church, with the richness of the rear porch giving a foretaste of the front porch.

Ample parking is provided as required by local codes, and handicapped accessible parking is prominently placed near the entry doors. A large, exterior gathering area is suggested by the arrangement of the sidewalks on the west side of the building, giving the opportunity for fellowship and gathering of the People of God outside of liturgy.

Interior view to the sanctuary: Though the budget has allowed only the most basic architectural shell, judicious use of architectural elaboration expresses the theological priorities in the room.

The central altar is the natural focus of the entire ensemble, with no blocked views. Modest architectural elaboration is given to the area surrounding the altar, giving it a proper setting and bringing the focus of the eye down to the liturgical action. The rear wall of the sanctuary echoes of the building’s west exterior façade, with the large center arch and two smaller arches providing an architectural completion of the foretaste given at the entry.

The side shrines are presented as clearly secondary, giving primacy to liturgical action and secondary status to devotional areas, reinforcing the notion that devotions flow from and return to the liturgy, but do not replace it.

The rood beam, a traditional element coming from the English tradition carried over to Virginia, also leads the eye of the worshipper down to the action of the altar via the crucifixion, reminding the worshipper that the Eucharistic liturgy is the representation of the sacrifice of Christ as well as the celebration of resurrection. It serves as a visual frame which focuses the worshippers’ attention on the altar and its liturgical action.

Stations of the Cross are currently in the possession of the chapel community and are reclaimed from an older structure. Ample wall space has been allowed for their installation.

This is a unique project, particularly for the tiny budget. But it certainly demonstrates how one can still build a beautiful, and well proportioned Church even on the smallest of budgets.
I look forward to seeing photos of the finished structure. Readers interested in the firm's more elaborate projects would do well to view their portfolio, available here. Particularly intriguing is their design for a Romanesque friary. I look forward to seeing more projects, large and small, from them in the future.

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