Bigelow Chapel

The United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, located on an 11-acre campus in New Brighton, Minnesota, is an ecumenical graduate and professional school of theology. While the seminary is of the United Church of Christ, its 250 students come from a variety of faiths, including United Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian; Roman Catholic, Judaism and Baptist; African Methodist Episcopal and Unitarian Universalist.

The seminary requested a 5,300 square-foot chapel building with a flexible sanctuary able to accommodate seating in a variety of configurations, along with a narthex, restrooms and a small office. The new $3.1 million chapel needed to connect to an existing classroom building and architecturally address a library across the lawn to the west, two simple structures erected in 1962 and made of buff-colored brick and precast concrete. The other two buildings on campus exhibit a similar straightforward modern style.

The real challenge set forth by the seminary, however, was a spiritual one. The sanctuary, as the focus of the building, had to be accessible-iconographically and aesthetically-to the seminary’s ecumenical community. While evoking the eminence and presence of God, the sanctuary was to quiet the spirit by addressing the religious lives of diverse people.

Rather than thinking in terms of a Christian worship space, the design embodies a spiritual one with a trinity of qualities: intimacy, warmth and light. The first two qualities are conveyed through a series of translucent, honey-colored, quilted maple panels that ripple up and down the interior of the sanctuary’s west-facing stainless steel curtain wall. To achieve this effect, one big-leaf maple log from the Pacific Northwest was shipped to Germany to be peeled, shipped to Indiana where it was cut into veneer strips 1/32-inch thick and laminated on each side with non-reflective acrylic. Maple floors and quilted maple ceiling panels, which extend from the dropped ceiling of the processional hall into the sanctuary, reinforce the sense of tranquil enclosure.

The translucent maple panels radiate a sense of warmth inside the sanctuary while the curving wood frame wraps the visitor in a gentle embrace that creates an intimate environment for reflection and prayer. As sunlight passes from the curtain wall through the maple veneer panels, the panels in turn filter and enrich the interior light. Light also enters the sanctuary through clerestory windows along the east wall and through skylights.

In addition to the focus on light and space, the connection between God and nature plays a central role inside the chapel. Two large windows in the sanctuary frame landscaped views. The south window overlooks the meditation garden and its lone musclewood tree, while a north window borders a single white oak tree. The exterior/interior glass fins screen and diffuse natural light from the skylights and west-facing curtainwall. The fins also introduce a planar quality of lightness, or weightlessness, that’s repeated in several other floating forms used throughout the chapel building.

The exterior cladding is an architectural precast concrete cast in molds made from split-faced Italian travertine. The bell tower is comprised of two slender walls 42 feet high, slightly offset from one another, with five chrome-plated bronze chimes nestled between the walls. The precast, along with the chapel building’s rhythmically vertical forms, respond to the existing campus architectural aesthetic, while the bell tower – which stands at the same height as the library – visually anchors the chapel to the library across the lawn.

While the sanctuary is asymmetrical – the processional walkway slopes down to the space, which is sited at the elevation of the west garden – the space is balanced and contemplative. With keen attention to the aesthetic and spiritual qualities of curving and planar forms, the architect-designed liturgical furniture and pre-manufactured chairs are seamlessly integrated into the overall composition. With its warmth and luminosity, the chapel has become a site of pilgrimage, drawing people of diverse faiths seeking its embrace for worship and meditation.


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