The Chapel of St. Basil – Phillip Johnson – Houston Tx

DSC05650My stay in Houston revealed many great works of architecture, and I wish I had more time, and better weather, to visit them all. When researching places to visit, many were located on St. Thomas University. This made easy work for me. My first and primary stop at St. Thomas University was The Menil Collection building designed by Renzo Piano. More on that later. St. Basil Chapel was not my primary mission on my adventure, but it proved to be a great find. The day ended up being overcast and scattered thunderstorms, but I was glad I went forward with the trip.  I love meaningful, poetic architecture. Designed by Phillip Johnson in 1996, St. Basil is full of symbolism and poetic spaces. The chapel is composed of 3 elements, a cube, sphere, and plane. DSC05631The cube represents the body of Christ, the sphere is the Kingdom of heaven, and I believe the the plane is our earthly existence, black sybolising death, the penetrations near the ground are an echo of the two story dorm doorways that line the courtyard beyond. The entrance the the chapel is through the “tent flap” in the cube. This clearly references the tent of the tabernacle in the old testament. The casual nature of the entrance is quite masterful. The chapel “allows” you to enter, it does not summon you. You must also, kind of “slip in” as an individual, as you can not enter side by side or in a group. Spiritually this reminds you of your personal relationship with God, not with a group or a significant other.  The sphere/dome is placed above you as you enter though the slit. DSC05697-1The second photo is taken from just inside the slit. This area is still an exterior space. The placement of the dome is important theological statement. I feel that this placement does two things. First it makes the kingdom of heaven accessible (metaphorically) by including it in the exterior space. Secondly by being partially revealed outside it draws the viewer to enter. Entry to the chapel is through the doors located in the black plane. Once inside your are instantly transported into a very sacred feeling space. The acoustics of this building are great. Once inside every sound you make fills the chapel. Its spaces like this that make you very aware of your own existence. For being such a dreary day, there was a surprising amount of light inside. Again, I found my 24mm to be just a bit long to capture the volume of space here. I could barely get a full straight on elevation of onDSC05676e of the walls with my trusty 24mm, so I had to get creative with my upward looking compositions. I brought a geared head for my tripod, so that made making fine adjustments much easier. I love how Johnson uses the black granite wall to bring in the exterior motif of the campus into the sacred space of the chapel.  This union of mortal and sacred space is what makes St. Basil Chapel so intriguing. There are many interesting facts about the chapel that I wish I had time to digest while I was there, but my visit was limited by the clock, so I had to leave. Other notable points of interest include the crucifix hangs off center on the wall, (Drove me crazy trying to compose a symmetrical photo) the bells on the exterior belonged to St. Basil in the 4th century. The library is on the opposite side of the courtyard symbolizing the need to balance spirituality and knowledge.

 

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