A Meeting of Light and Craft

Volume 47, Issue 2 :: By James Bradberry, AIA

Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse

When the Chestnut Hill Friends of Chestnut Hills, Pennsylvania, first came to us in 2006 with the notion of building a new meetinghouse, we jumped at the chance. After all, most architects would welcome the opportunity to build a house of worship, and Quakerism is richly imbedded in the history and fabric of the Philadelphia region. From a design standpoint, we were enamored with the idea of how to reinterpret a Quaker meetinghouse for the 21stst century, especially since a new meetinghouse had not been built in the Delaware Valley in more than 50 years.

Meeting of the minds

Architect James Bradberry (at left) meets with artist James Turrell and the artist’s wife Kyung-Lim Lee in the Chestnut Hill meeting room.

We were also enticed with the idea of working with renowned light artist James Turrell, who is also a Quaker, a man who has spent his life trying to make art literally out of thin air. Though Turrell works with artificial light, his best-known works are “Skyspaces,” an aperture in a ceiling open to the sky. Turrell plays with the notion of positive and negative space. The ceiling is painted a neutral color, and the sky is framed. LED lights wash the ceiling, affecting viewers’ perceptions of sky and light. The work is meant to be experienced at sunrise or sunset, that liminal time when the sky subtly changes, night to dawn, dusk to evening. Light is also a metaphor in Quakerism, linked to inner spiritualism and energy.

Architects and artists have collaborated on buildings throughout history, most particularly in the pre-Modern period. Gothic cathedrals come to mind, structures that were amalgam creations by master builders, stained glass artists, stone carvers, sculptors, mosaic craftsmen, muralists, and the like. Such collaborations waned in the post-industrial age, though the Arts and Crafts, Secessionist, and De Stijl movements attempted to rekindle them. Today, the nexus of art and architecture is usually disjointed, for example, when a one-percent-for-art program commissions a piece after the building is designed, and the artist and architect have very little dialogue.

The Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse was a different experience. Both our office and Turrell were involved from the beginning. Our charge was to design the overall building, and to accommodate Turrell’s Skyspace in the meeting room. From a design standpoint, that meant designing the room both as functional space and as a work of art. Together with Turrell, we developed the proportions of the room, its height, the particulars of the vaulted ceiling, materiality, the size of the aperture, the lighting cove, viewing angles, etc. Generally our influence stopped at functionality, especially above eye level, deferring to Turrell. For example, he did not want to see any architectural elements on the ceiling, such as light fixtures, sprinkler heads, life safety devices, etc. The plaster finish had to be specified to rigorous standards, the paint to exacting hue and luminance, etc. Our method of working together was for us to develop drawings (plans, sections, elevations), then to sit with Turrell and a roll of tracing paper to refine things. It was a winnowing process, essentially, and the design slowly came together over a period of years. Ultimately we were able to achieve everything he desired, and to do so within the client’s budget.

Knife-edged detail

Sectional drawing of the meeting room skyspace, with its knife-edged detail; Turrell wanted the aperture to appear to have no thickness.

We also consulted with Turrell on the overall building design. Here we took the lead, but since Turrell is a practicing Quaker, we valued his input. We also did not want to create a building design that would be disjunctive with the look and feel of the meeting room. As in any religious structure, the sequence of moving through the building to the worship space is one of utmost importance. Symbolically, one is moving from the profane (the outside world) to the sacred (the worship space), though sacred is a word that most Quakers would eschew. The point is that we felt it important to make that journey special, and to that end, we wanted Turrell to assist us. We also valued his input on materials and furnishings. For example, the meeting room benches were custom designed by our office, and yet Turrell was able to weigh in on them. In the end, we feel, it was a successful collaboration.

There were numerous technical issues to overcome in the design, which for the most part, our office tackled. Beyond Turrell’s desire to have unadorned walls and ceiling, he wanted the aperture to have no thickness, at least no thickness that a visitor could see. Thus we developed a fairly sophisticated steel roof structure and “knife’s edge” opening for the aperture, such that when the retractable roof is opened and the sky revealed, the rectangle of light is quite abstract, with no perceived roof thickness. In the same way, surrounding trees were removed or pruned, so that nothing but sky would be visible through the opening. As noted above, the vaulted ceiling of the meeting room and the aperture are washed by artificial light to augment the daylight projected by the opening. Hidden LED light fixtures are located at the spring point of the vault. The lights consist of the colors green, red, blue, and white, and the colors are mixed via a computer to control for hue, intensity, color fade, etc. Turrell worked with his engineers to create a few different preset programs, custom designed for Philadelphia’s longitude and latitude and the city’s atmospheric conditions.

The overall project was a leap of faith for Chestnut Hill. They are a small Meeting, and it was an ambitious financial endeavor. There were also those who felt that a work of art, even one so abstract and linked to Quaker values, was not appropriate for a worship space. In the end, these voices were consulted and heard, and ultimately each member was on board. Partnerships were also forged with arts groups, museums, foundations, and the like, and financial support was lent to the project that would not have been forthcoming without the Skyspace. The building is open to the public on certain days for viewing, such that the public/private venture is by all accounts a success.

Quaker Meetinghouses typically last for generations. This was a unique project to have been involved with, and one that we hope will be around for a long time. It would not be a bad thing for an art lover to come to Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting and be moved by the spirituality of the space, nor for a spiritual person to be awed by the beauty of the Skyspace and the meeting room.

The author is principal of James Bradberry Architects in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and the author of three novels.