Design From Dialogue

Volume 42, Issue 3 :: by the Reverend Victor Kazanjian and Stephen Kieran, FAIA

Houghton Chapel and Multifaith Center at Wellesley College

  • View of the new worship space, and the circulation space that surrounds it. Photo: Halkin Photography, LLC
  • Plan of the Multifaith Center, on the lower level of the chapel.

  • Space in the chapel basement, before it was transformed into the fellowship room (next photo). Photo: Halkin Photography, LLC

  • The fellowship room occupies a space that reflects the shape of the chapel apse. Photo: Halkin Photography, LLC

The renovation of Houghton Chapel and Multifaith Center at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, is a project profoundly rooted in dialogue: between architect and client, between historical and contemporary programs and spaces, and among the people of diverse cultures and religions who constitute the campus community. This dialogue moved the project beyond implementing preconceived notions of what a renovated chapel space might look like, and instead impelled us to create spaces within an historic structure that would welcome all and would invite the campus to experience the diversity of the human community.

Prominent on college and university campuses across the country are buildings, often referred to simply as “the chapel,” that once reflected the religious component of the educational missions of these institutions. Originally home to daily gatherings for prayer and ethical instruction, mostly in the Protestant Christian tradition, these chapel buildings have seen diminished use in the past half-century as educational institutions have renounced their religious past and have embraced a secular context for their future. Chapels on many campuses are religious anachronisms and function mostly as additional meeting spaces for community gatherings and lectures, or as historical buildings offering a quaint stop on college tours or a venue for the occasional wedding or memorial service. Since the mid-1990s growing religious diversity on campuses, reflecting the changing demographics of American society and the internationalization of American colleges and universities, has caused a rethinking of the role of religious and spiritual life in higher education and has thus brought new focus on religious and spiritual spaces, leading to the development of multifaith chapels.

In 1992 Wellesley College, a secular liberal arts college, set out on an uncharted path to create a new model for engaging religious diversity and spirituality as part of its overall educational program. In the nearly two decades that have followed, Wellesley has developed a multifaith religious and spiritual life program that supports Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian (Evangelical, Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic), Hindu, Humanist, Indigenous Peoples, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Native American, Pagan, Sikh, Unitarian Universalist, and Zoroastrian traditions, and spiritual seekers of all kinds. But more than just a place for the celebration of different faiths, the core of Wellesley’s program, called Beyond Tolerance, is an educational program on interreligious understanding and dialogue intended to equip students with the intellectual and practical skills necessary to be citizens of a religiously diverse world. Wellesley also offers programs on spirituality and education including wellness programs, pastoral counseling and spiritual direction, meditation, yoga, dance, and labyrinth walks to help students incorporate healthy practices into their lives and learning.

In 2006 one of the major challenges that remained for Wellesley was the spaces necessary to house its religious and spiritual life program. At the center of Wellesley’s campus sits Houghton Chapel, a 125-year-old building that had fallen into disrepair and, from the 1950s to the advent of the multifaith religious and spiritual life program in 1992, was only sporadically used. In the two decades that followed, the Chapel became home for multifaith programs, religion-specific worship, community gathering, musical performances, lectures, and rituals. The building, however, particularly the dank and dingy basement in which most of the multifaith activities were held, was no longer adequate for all this activity. For years the College had talked about the need to restore and renovate the Chapel for its new contemporary use, but numerous initiatives found their way to the bottom of the priority list of building needs.

In 2006, as part of a larger fundraising campaign, Wellesley committed to a $7 million project to renew the Chapel building by restoring the upper Chapel and creating on the lower level an inspiring Multifaith Center. The project, designed by KieranTimberlake, was completed in April 2008 and included replacing all building systems; creating new chairs, new flooring, and a sprinkler system; repairing the roof; and improving acoustics. The entire Chapel has been made accessible through the addition of a ramp, an elevator, and accessible restrooms. Drainage around the building’s perimeter has been enhanced to stop water penetration of the walls and foundations, exterior lighting has been extended, and exterior stairs repaired. The original beauty of the upper Chapel has been restored, and the enhancements needed for 21st-century programs have been added.

The centerpiece of the project is the complete and dramatic transformation of the basement into the Multifaith Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. Upon entering the new Multifaith Center one is greeted by a meditation fountain and a reflection pool. At the heart of the Center is a new multifaith worship space with translucent, linen-encased resin walls. The space glows like a lantern within the century-old brick and stone walls, celebrating light and discovery where, in physical terms, one expects only darkness. The multifaith worship space, which provides flexible spiritual gathering space for people of all faiths and for multifaith programs, is surrounded on three sides by smaller rooms, each devoted to a more specific form of spiritual practice: prayer, meditation, and study. Symbolically these three rooms and their relationship to the multifaith worship space provide the community with the places for practice necessary for their specific faith, and also for encounters with one another and for dialogue within Wellesley’s multifaith community. A gathering space contiguous to the worship space, with an adjoining kitchen to prepare and share food, provides a place for students, faculty, staff, and alumnae to gather in community.

The Chapel and Multifaith Center, while actively creating spaces for inter-religious understanding, dialogue, and encounter for the purpose of education and building community, have become a kind of global commons on campus where the people of the world gather to nurture and celebrate all particular forms of religious and spiritual practice. The newly renovated spaces not only support ongoing multifaith work at Wellesley but offer new opportunities for exploring religious diversity and spirituality as they shape Wellesley and the world.

The first principle of the program is that the work of the Multifaith Center is about education: the religious and spiritual programs and spaces must serve educational purposes, not simply religious ones. The spaces themselves needed to be part of educating a global community about religious pluralism and spirituality. The second principle is what is called “beyond tolerance,” which describes a pluralism that balances the honoring of the particular expressions of religious and spiritual practice of particular groups or individuals with larger notions of the interconnectedness of all people and the importance of creating a common community with shared ethical norms. This necessitated creating spaces of engagement where not only could issues of inclusiveness be addressed, but also where the tensions and complex historical and contemporary conflicts among religious peoples could be engaged. The spaces would offer a place of discovery, where people could explore the deepest questions of meaning and purpose in their lives, and could go in times of joy and sorrow. They would be places that retain the ancient purposes of learning as about body, mind, and soul, but in a multifaith and broadly spiritual context.

The greatest gift for an architect is a profound program, a statement about an institution to use to generate form: a vision or a particular view of humanity in the world that becomes the genesis for form-making. The concept of equality of presence for all groups, regardless of size, translated directly into the three rooms on the perimeter of the main hall. At one point in the design, there was a discussion about these rooms’ being associated with specific faiths: a Muslim Prayer Room, a Buddhist Meditation room, etc. But ultimately we realized that these spaces were not about particular faiths. They were about modes of spiritual practice, about worship, study, meditation, prayer, and gathering for food and fellowship. People of all faiths engage in each of these modes of practice. No matter how small the contingency of a particular group might be, equity for all on the campus became formative for the planning strategy.

Rather than creating functional rooms for prayer, meditation, and study as completely independent spaces, it became architecturally important to fuse them back to the central worship hall so that the spaces would be in dialogue with one another. We accomplished this by extending the wood floor of the worship space into the three surrounding rooms and aligning the doors of the worship hall with the doors of those spaces so that you could never be in one and not feel the presence of the other.

Ultimately, the spaces are the result of an emergent process of discovery and design influenced by our shared interest in the architectural forms of spaces throughout the world. Reflecting on the spiritual spaces throughout Asia and Europe, particularly those in India and Italy, together we were able to expand the design vocabulary of spaces for a global community. For example, based on experiences of walking in Hindu and Buddhist temples and through cathedrals, synagogues, and mosques where people enter and are led on a walk around and through various spaces, we explored the notion of a space as a circumambulatory experience, a concept we both related to.

Another discovery was the use of such elements as light, water, earth, stone: aspects of ancient sacred space and practice movingly incorporated into the design. Counterpoised against the magnificence of the chapel above and in dialogue with it, light is the heart of the whole enterprise and unifies its different modes and diversities. To discover at the core of this building a luminous, glowing box of light is startling: LED (light-emitting diode) lit resin panels in which linen is embedded make the walls of the worship space glow. An ancient cloth, encased in modern materials, used for the same purpose intended by those who made the stained glass above in an earlier generation, inspired the design. The juxtaposition of these ancient and modern technologies to create a moving appreciation and response to the presence of light is another part of the dialogue between history and modernity.

To wander through the building at various times of day and night is to take in the sounds and silences therein: beautiful music as the choir, orchestra, and musicians of all types make this space their home; Shabbat services, Christian prayers, Unitarian-Universalist songs, all occurring in the same multifaith worship space; chanting from the Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu communities in the meditation room; and the steady stream of Muslim and Baha’i women walking to the prayer room. There are also weekly meetings of the Wellesley chaplains and multifaith student council, and lectures, movies, and programs.

And there have been special moments: Flower Sunday when a thousand students gathered in the Chapel for a multifaith celebration of sisterhood; Yom Kippur services, Iftar dinners, and Holy Week services all held in the worship room of the Multifaith Center; poetry jams, a monthly interfaith coffee house, Dinner and Dialogue (a monthly program for the campus on religion and society), and training programs for student leaders on interfaith dialogue; alumnae events, lectures, and conferences on religious perspectives of global issues; convocation, baccalaureate; memorials and weddings. The opportunities continue to grow.

What may be most surprising about the Multifaith Center is that students are using it in an informal ‘round-the-clock way as a place to study, cook, play, and eat together. Kazanjian recalls: “One night, as I ventured back to what I was sure would be an empty space to do a few chores, I discovered a Center full of Wellesley students playing music, dancing, talking, and painting each other’s hands with Mendi. It was a party planned by Wellesley’s Hindu and Muslim students, open to all and attended by Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Baha’is, and a whole host of other friends. I stood there in awe and thought to myself, ‘This is it. This is what we hoped and imagined.’ I asked the students gathered how this happened, and they said, ‘The space is so beautiful it feels sacred for all of us, and we just want to be here.’”

Project Credits

  • Architect KieranTimberlake Stephen Kieran, FAIA, and James Timberlake, FAIA (Design Partners); Amy Floresta, AIA; Jason Smith, AIA; Benita Lee, AIA; Shawn Protz; Paul Worrell, AIA (Design Team)
  • Construction Manager Richard White Sons, Inc.
  • Structural Engineer and MEP/FP/Civil Engineer BVH Integrated Services
  • Lighting Consultant Arup Lighting
  • A/V and Acoustics Acentech Incorporated
  • Code Consultant Rolf Jensen Associates
  • Cost Estimator International Consultants, Inc.
  • Specifications Writer Wilson Consulting, Inc.

The Reverend Victor Kazanjian is Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life and Co-director of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College. Stephen Kieran, FAIA, is design partner at KieranTimberlake, an internationally recognized architecture firm based in Philadelphia.

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