SHEPHERD OF THE VALLEY
Smell the newness, smell the wood, smell the aliveness of this place…
To begin, I just want to invite you to open your imaginations today…
When we built this, we were not absolutely certain how it would be used because we are a church and we don’t determine the use of our lives and the use of our materials and the use of our abilities. We leave that to God. I just heard this little one here stepping, and I can imagine dancing in this place. I can imagine candle-light services in this place. I can imagine lively conversations of the church council in this place. I can imagine the youth praying in this place, praying through their bodies. I can imagine all kinds of things, and I want you to be part of that imagining with me. Live into this space as the launching pad formation.”
–Reverend Starbuck, at the Chapel’s consecration, October 16, 2008
Shepherd of the Valley, a United Methodist Church in Hope, Rhode Island, hired us initially to prepare an assessment and feasibility study for their needs to expand. The church had grown and the existing building was no longer seen as being adequate in meeting the needs of worship, ministry, education and other activities. There was also an overall need for maintenance repair. Stan Mar buildings constructed the existing building in 1970, using pre-fabricated, vinyl-sided wood construction. We identified a formal origin for the current shape of the existing church as having a Basilican Plan, an external form with a deep gable and internally with a central nave and aisles—a formal type that goes back two millennia as the form for both churches and barns. Our study revealed pressing needs for a new education wing, restructured sanctuary end wall, reorganized entry and an overall renovation of the existing building’s exterior.
All of these changes would seek to make the church breathe, in the sense that there should be greater visibility and connection between spaces, between inside and outside and material choices could be made for the renovated exterior that literally breathe more than the current vinyl siding. The material and tectonic integrity of a barn, which was a kind of model for the shape of the existing church and part of the context for its rural setting, served as a renewed inspiration for future work.
After preparing schematic designs for a staged approach that addressed the overall needs, the church’s Building Visions committee decided on a fund-raising campaign targeting an initial stage of expansion for the design of a multi-purpose pavilion. This pavilion, located as an extension of the existing education wing, could also serve as a new freestanding children’s chapel. Instead of applying the funds of the campaign across all of the areas that needed additional space and maintenance, the Building Visions committee wanted to concentrate the funding, energy and effort on a small project that could serve as an inspiration for the future stages of development.
The order for the design of a chapel started with the plan and its perimeter walls. These walls, at the south end of the chapel, start as a continuation of the existing walls of the education wing. The west wall however, angles inward, in order to maintain an open outdoor space that could serve for gathering. Because the east and west walls are not parallel and because the ceiling’s geometry on each side of the ridge beam is square to the east and west walls respectively, the lines of the geometry continue to spiral around from wall to ceiling to wall to floor, like a string wrapping the space. The lines of the spiral slowly contract as the geometry moves northward approaching the geometrical infinite limit. “Spiral” comes from the Latin, “spirare” or spirit…a figure that is always expanding and contracting like breath and the related words, “respire,” “inspire,” “expire” and for the chapel, “spire.”
The spiraling geometric order of the chapel is suggested on the exterior of the chapel at the window openings in that the widths of the windows become narrower as they approach the north end of the building. The chapel is clad in a taut skin of tongue and groove vertical grain western red cedar with the east and west walls canting outward, allowing rain water to fall freely past the building. The jambs of the windows are bracketed by sapele mahogany ribs that hold a true plumb line against the canting wall surface. Critical junctures of the building are articulated with zinc coated copper that extend upward to create rain water diverters, parapet cap flashing, downspouts and transition pieces between canted and plumb walls.
Entry to the pavilion is made at the point where the geometric spatial order pulls away from the existing education wing and forms a hinged gap between the new and the old buildings. The recessed light troughs, the pattern of the slate flooring and the walls follow the lines of the geometric order. At some points the walls are short of reaching the ceiling, and at others, falls short of the floor. The foyer doubles back on itself leading to the entry of the chapel space.
Upon entry to the chapel space, the geometric order makes itself fully apparent by means of a continuous line of sapele that wraps through the space. The line begins as a sapele inlay within the tongue and groove red oak flooring. As the flooring meets the wall at an angle, it turns to become a deep rib that is perpendicular to the wall and extends upward. These are the same wood ribs that were visible on the exterior of the building at either side of the windows.
The rib continues across the roof, reorients itself at ridge line, continues down the other wall and across the floor until it is reoriented once again at the “keel,” or the central axis of the floor of the chapel. The red oak ceiling pulls inward against the roof ribs while the infill of the walls pushes outward. The south edge of the ceiling is level and flat at nine feet high and progressively pushes upward as the spiral contracts towards the north reaching a height of eighteen feet. The geometry never closes, but approaches an infinite limit at the north end of the chapel where the roof leaves a gap at a skylight that rakes the north wall with light. The General Contractor on the chapel was Atlantic Management Group.