Old Friends in New Places

Volume 45, Issue 3 :: by Stephen Kieran, Michael Saxenian, and Jason Smith

Architect and client reflect on making a new worship space on a Quaker school campus.

Sidwell Friends School, a K-12 Quaker school in Washington, D.C., recently transformed a 1950s gymnasium into a contemplative space for worship, with additional facilities for art and music instruction. Guided by the Quaker tenet of consensus, the planning process was both deliberate and inclusive. The depth of that partnership developed over many years, ultimately resulting in a series of ethical choices that melded into the final realization of the meeting house. Quaker meeting is a central part of the community experience at Sidwell Friends. Every student participates in weekly meetings that consist of sitting in silence and allowing messages to emerge. The belief is that each person has a direct connection with God or the divine, and that as messages come forward, they can be shared with the community. Meetings can be uneventful or quite profound as students voice thoughts important to themselves about their own lives or about the world around them. Thus a dedicated meeting house was an essential element of the KieranTimberlake master plan. Of particular importance was its location: at the front of campus, to signify the importance of worship (but where it might have compromised the administration building’s national historic register designation) or in the heart of campus, to signify the centrality of the faith. Some wondered whether the school should invest in a new building. However, the ethic of building reuse, which Sidwell Friends has worked to incorporate into all of its planning, is tied to two spiritually important tenets: stewardship and simplicity.

Kenworthy Gymnasium had been used as a makeshift worship space for more than a decade, and offered a unique “front and center” campus location. However, it was acoustically cavernous, noisy from building systems, and architecturally uninspiring; also, 500 folding chairs had to be set up for each meeting. So when a transformation was proposed, there was much skepticism about whether the gym could become a truly sacred space. Some questioned the cost of a comprehensive renovation versus that of a new building on the same site. A variety of cost analyses showed that retaining the old building would indeed be economically advantageous, and ultimately, despite the relatively modest quality of the original building, it became a question of value. Through many iterations, the design advanced far enough that both client and architect became convinced it would work. As one member of the community summarized, “It seems that the right thing to do, in a spirit of stewardship and environmentalism, is to hold onto as much as we can.” That sentiment provided a sense of closure on the decision to retain the existing building.

Embracing the constraints of the existing volume allowed the worship space to evolve into a very elemental room. And when considering what form a 21st-century meeting house should take, decisions about space and materials reflected Quaker tradition. While not relying on it for literal representation, the institution became a guiding principle for selecting materials, shaping the space, and introducing light in contemporary ways. A breakthrough was the use of ceiling planes, necessary for acoustics, as a modulator of light and space. Skylights admit soft light down through the planes, which are arranged to “center” the room. The planes overlap the skylights and the windows, focusing the light but hiding its source. Suspended walls add layers of space that also have an acoustical function. The acoustical consultant used a combination of absorptive and reflective surfaces on the ceiling planes and the upper walls, resulting in a room that performs beautifully, where even the smallest unamplified voices can be easily distinguished. And the decision to include risers, both as a way to provide additional texture to the space and to improve sight lines, reflects an important element of traditional meetinghouse design while serving contemporary needs.

Limiting the palette to just two elemental and simple materials, wood and plaster, was key to the outcome. Wood in old meeting houses is often placed where hands can rub against it for centuries and it still looks great, so lining the lower walls and floor with the same wood was very much in keeping with Quaker tradition. The space’s simplicity is not compromised by the advanced mechanical and audio-visual systems, well concealed among the design elements.

The space appears contained by floating planes, behind which light emerges.

The space appear to be contained by floating planes, behind which light emerges.

The insertion of a large solar array among the skylights that illuminate the meeting space is a fusion of performance and poetry. Sunlight is both generating electricity on the roof and is the fundamental substance of the form of the building. This seems to be a particularly important message for youth today: that you can build the art around the light itself and it will generate renewable energy; a spiritual place can thus aspire to a LEED Platinum rating.

Other critical issues were accommodating the art program and knitting the building fully back into the campus. The initial schematic for a modest addition did not meet the school’s programmatic requirements, so its size was increased, only to find that it was over budget. Then the team began a very determined process to meet the program need and preserve as much of the original building as possible to rein in cost. That effort yielded a beautiful result that worked for both worship and the art and music program. Considering the context of the building, we designed landscape elements that spiral out into the site both to improve the front of the gymnasium and to engage it with greater campus activity. Reforming the front façade of the gym extends the meeting out into the campus. Many urban meeting houses have a garden that precedes its entrance. The new porch and garden at Sidwell unite the building with the plaza, and create a sense of passage and tranquility going into the meeting, a site-planning idea that emerged from Quaker tradition.

Quakers believe that any place can become sacred by virtue of the worship that is going on in it. However, there is also a sense that the simple quality of a space facilitates worship in a very positive way. Such a place of worship at the heart of the Sidwell Friends campus sends an important message about the centrality of Quaker values to the educational approach of the school.

Stephen Kieran, FAIA, and Jason Smith, AIA, are architects at KieranTimberlake, an architecture firm based in Philadelphia. Michael Saxenian is the Assistant Head of School and Chief Financial Officer at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.