Raising the ‘Tent of Meeting’

Volume 52, Issue 1 :: Xavier Chérrez

The new chapel takes on the presence of a tent-like structure

The new chapel takes on the presence of a tent-like structure, modulated in color of changing intensity.
Photos: José M. Cutillas

Pre-installation condition

Condition of the chapel space before installation of new design.
Photo: Courtesy of Chérrez + Cantera

In September, 2017 I received a text message from Father Cristóbal Jiménez, a young Jesuit priest who is the director of the Centro de Espiritualidad de Salamanca (CES) in Spain. He was in search of ideas to renovate two chapels and suggested we visit. We immediately sensed the importance. The city of Salamanca is overwhelmingly rich in cultural heritage, perhaps most memorably for the beautiful light and color reflected from its characteristic stone architecture. This cultural detail proved providential in our design. Stonewalls are often decorated with beautiful handwritten emblems called “victor symbols,” a sort of 14th-century graffiti tradition, commemorating students’ attainment of their doctorates. By custom, they are often rendered in red paint.

Built in 1923, the CES is a Jesuit retreat center occupying a large and elegantly proper classical building–surprisingly elegant for its modest age. More than 30 chapels are distributed among its generous residential floors, always available for individual prayer or for intimate celebrations. Most striking is the Centro’s pervasive silence in the heart of a vibrant university and tourist city. Every year, the CES offers service and silence to more than 6,000 people.

Plan of the new chapel defined by fabric walls.

Plan of the new chapel defined by fabric walls.

Spending a weekend there, working and meeting with Father Jiménez, it quickly became clear that the purpose could not be served by conventional chapels or decorated rooms. The purpose was to build an idea—an idea that could help connect with those who have forgotten and those who have yet to know the basics of the Catholic faith. An idea linked to the beginnings of faith.

As there were to be two chapels, a pair of primal places came to mind: the cave and the tent. Both would be simple immersive spaces built of different materials. Perfect in their simplicity, these would be the Stone Chapel and the Cloth Chapel. Construction of the first, now named the “Chapel of the Founders,” has been deferred to accommodate funding pressing maintenance needs. The latter, now built, became the “Chapel of Meeting,” or the “Tent of Meeting.” Executed of necessity in cloth, it evokes Moses’ Tent as a spiritual place of encounter. As is explained in Exodus 33.7:

Now it was Moses’ way to put up the Tent of Meeting outside the tent-circle, at some distance away; giving it the name of the Tent of Meeting. And everyone desiring to make his prayer to the Lord went to the Tent of Meeting.

Intended simplicity is never simple in execution. In such an intensively used retreat house such as this, the chapels need to be built and finished without breaking the silence that reigns in the building. As my colleague, Raquel Cantera, and I were understanding the place and requirements to be met in order to make this idea feasible, we soon realized that it required a completely different approach from the kind of construction we are more familiar with.

The unbuilt “Chapel of the Founders” conjures a primal space where a soft and subtle light enters the room, reflected over hundreds of Salamanca stone slats. Shaped as a cave, it connects to the idea of a primal gathering place where the notion of beginning could be expressed. It evokes the room where a group of men first joined Ignatius of Loyola´s iconic idea: founding the Jesuit order. As if by spontaneous graffiti, the stone slats are stamped with the signatures on the order’s founding document, connecting with that founding moment. The bodily presence of Christ in the tabernacle is to be expressed by an anomaly in the slats and a moving intense and shapeless red light. Encountering mystery is often not pleasant. It is something momentous that can neither be tamed nor expressed fully. It is its endless discomfort and challenge that requires expression.

Now completed, the “Tent of Meeting” chapel was designed and engineered in our studio, cut and pre-fabricated in a nearby warehouse, and finally transported to Salamanca to be assembled. In a charrette-like labor of love, we personally engineered the assembly, kitted-out the materials (fabricated slats, eyelets, and stay cables), then arranged their transportation and erection in time for Easter.

In Moses’ tent only two elements sheltered those who entered: cloth and light. Similarly, our chapel eliminates imagery and distracting elements, enabling the mystery within the tabernacle to become the only point of attention—God’s real presence for those who seek a meeting. Evoking Moses’ tent, the space is shaped only by light and fabric. These are distributed along seven planes built out of 956 delicate, translucent sheets tensioned by gravity, following a precise pattern to bestow a sense of heft, density, and thickness to these imaginary walls. As in the testament, light and undefined shade are the tools that we used to design the tabernacle, filling the room as if a singular ardent, fervid, fiery, flaming pillar of faith—a vetero-testamental form within an apparently real yet abstract chapel inspired by one of the first of the faith. A crucifix must always be introduced in every Catholic church or chapel; in this one we daringly chose not to, because we felt that the tabernacle is everything.

The author is a principal of the architecture firm Chérrez + Cantera, with his partner Raquel Cantera, based in Pamplona, Spain.