Born on January 31, 1921 in Pine Bluff Arkansas, E. Fay Jones was an American designer and architect. He was F.L.Wright’s only apprentice to receive the highest honor for American Architects i.e. AIA gold medal. AIA recognized Jones’s full body of work as ‘exquisite architecture of gentle beauty and quiet dignity’. He completed 218 projects, and out of the 129 built ones, 84 were situated in Arkansas. Fay Jones was the only surviving child in the family after the death of her two elder sisters in childhood. He always had an interest in art and building, and hence enjoyed designing treehouses in Grammar School and High School. He was always sure of the fact that he wouldn’t get into the restaurant business of his parents and hence was always searching for options. It was only after watching a film about Johnson Wax Headquarters designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright that he knew he would be an architect.
Jones’s projects emphasize the structural elements as in the Thorncrown Chapel or the Cooper Chapel, which may have been due to his engineering classes at the University of Arkansas in his earlier days. He also served as a naval aviator in the United States Navy during the World War II and piloted torpedo and dive bombers.
Jones met Wright during his visit to the Oklahoma School of Architecture where Bruce Goff, a noted US architect whom Jones had met while teaching at the University of Oklahoma, included Jones in a small faculty dinner with Wright. And the discussion that evening led to Wright’s inviting Jones to spend Easter of 1953 at Taliesin West, near Phoenix for apprenticeship. Teaching and maintaining an architectural practice, Fay Jones managed both of them well.
“My ambition was limited to doing two to three houses every year and having favorable responses in this area of the country. I wanted respect for what I was doing, but I didn’t expect to become a well-known architect. My focus was on being a good teacher”
During twenty five years of career, he worked mostly on residential projects. His projects Thorncrown Chapel and Cooper Chapel gained him national and international recognition. Although F.L. Wright and organic architecture was a strong influence on Jones, yet he had a very identifiable style of his own which was very different from Wright’s. Wright himself pointed Jones’s emphasis on verticality as a major difference in their approaches during his visit to Jones’s own two year old residence. As Jones recalled, “Wright himself stood out there by my house, with its vertical board-and batten siding, and he said, ‘You know, I tend to do it like this,’ motioning horizontally, ‘but you tend to do it like this. Do more of this; I like the drip,’ which is how he referred to the way I had the battens kind of hanging down.”
Arriving at the best design idea or concept in the world is only ten percent of the process; the other ninety percent is getting it built the way you want it to be!
– Fay Jones
Have a look at the two most critically acclaimed projects of Fay Jones.
Constructed using over 6000 square feet of glass, the church has 425 windows. The chapel is fourth in AIA’s list of top buildings of the twentieth century. It has received a special 25-Year Award of Excellence from AIA amongst many other awards. Located in Eureka Springs, Arkansas the chapel was constructed in 1980. With a resemblance to Gothic cathedrals due to its verticality, the chapel peacefully rests among the trees, and appears to have grown from the site in the Ozarks.
Thorncrown Chapel at different times of the day (Source: file:///D:/enhanced-buzz-orig-1847-1371614044-10.webp)
With an unexpected entrance at the bend of a hill, this open room chapel is rectangular in plan and measures 24 feet wide and 60 feet long, and rises 48 feet into the tree canopy. The fieldstone foundation walls not only tie the chapel seamlessly into the ground but also act as ductwork while its glass gable roof merges within the tree canopies. As the day progresses, the quality of light changes inside the chapel owing to the transparent glass walls, and the chapel exudes its magnificence at all times.
One thing that was clear from the start was that there was no scope of use of earth moving equipment or massive construction materials without destroying the forests. So, the materials had to be such that they could be easily carried by two people. Each truss was constructed using southern pine of sizes like 2’x4’, 2’x6’, 2’x12’, which could easily be lifted by two men across the woods. “It became a building of many small pieces . . . linked together into modular, angular structural elements that formed a larger cage-like structure infilled with clear glass,” quoted Fay Jones in Robert Adams Ivy, Jr., The Architecture of E. Fay Jones, FAIA.
Site Plan (Source: https://en.wikiarquitectura.com/building/thorncrown-chapel/#lg=1&slide=5)
“This stabilizing web of braces, under a ridge skylight, receives a constantly changing play of light and pattern-a natural ornamentation of the structure and the space,” said Fay Jones.
Long section (Source: https://en.wikiarquitectura.com/building/thorncrown-chapel/#lg=1&slide=5)
The most interesting detail in the church is the illusionary infinity effect of light created by the diamond shaped steel connectors that join the wooden braces at the centre of the chapel. Jones purposely did few projects so he could give personal attention to each one. And in his projects he ensured that he designed and customized all pieces of furniture and accessories, so there is part to whole relationship and vice versa. “I wanted there to be a family of forms or patterns, a strong generating idea that everything relates to, rather than having just an assembly of things,” Jones told an interviewer. He also wanted to “keep the detailing very, very simple, integral to the design . . . [N]othing has been stuck on just for decoration.”
Another very important structural aspect about this chapel was the concept of operative opposite. Although a resemblance to Gothic cathedrals, the basic rule of Gothic Construction which is the use of repeated external flying buttresses to hold the structure upward and inward was reversed in this chapel. He went on to explain, “Thorncrown has this repetition of structural elements, but stability is achieved by wooden tensile members pulling from within.” Tension rather than compression: the operative opposite.
View of the Chapel from entrance (Source: https://en.wikiarquitectura.com/building/thorncrown-chapel/)
Lighting Fixtures and Furniture designed by Jones (Source: https://thorncrown.com/photogallery.html)
Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel
This chapel was constructed in 1988 in Bella Vista, Arkansas. Jones’ second major project for a chapel, it has a similar Gothic character as the Thorncrown Chapel owing to its verticality and progression of frames. Larger than the Thorncrown Chapel, Cooper Chapel measures twenty-four feet wide by eighty-four feet long and rises fifty-four feet to its sky lighted peak. Protected by a wooded hill and overlooking a lake, the wood and steel framed arch structure resting on a low stone foundation welcomes the visitor. The entrance to the chapel is framed by a tall pointed-arch opening. With flagstone flooring and pointed arch oak doors, the chapel has a rectangular plan with glass walls that enclose ductwork for heating, cooling system held in place between steel-and-wood columns set at six-foot intervals. The round unglazed window just above the point of arch is symbolic of Gothic rose window. The customized foot lamps along the hillside pathway leading to the chapel were designed by Jones himself.
Mildred B. Cooper Chapel (Source: https://www.thephotolove.com/blog/2017/6/22/mary-brett-mildred-b-cooper-chapel-wedding)
Fay Jones explained: “I wanted something light and delicate for the bracing of the building. There’s a reference to Gothic architecture in the characteristic geometry of the building, but we wanted a web shape. Steel, being very strong, could produce a thinner structure than could wood.” He also called it ‘a steel building inside a wood building’ and both the wood and the steel industries cited Cooper for distinctive use of their products.
Mildred B. Cooper Chapel
Web shaped bracing (Source: https://www.thephotolove.com/blog/2017/6/22/mary-brett-mildred-b-cooper-chapel-wedding)
An article on “Uses of Wood Framing” in Progressive Architecture claimed that “while steel channels are used extensively as columns and brackets, the impression that the building gives is one of being made of wood.” Modern Steel Construction, on the other hand (and more justifiably), called Cooper Chapel “a spiderlike steel structure. Architecture magazine said, “Cooper Chapel quietly commands a dignity and presence uncommon among buildings of our era. It is a harmonious celebration of strength and delicacy. . . .” Focusing on the chapel’s relationship to its site and to nature more generally, a Friends of Kebyar article stated, “It is an open structure which strives to meld into the landscape. In a sense it becomes a transparent, light-filled structure which attempts to establish a meaningful interaction and interchange with the site, inviting the natural nuances of nature-time of day and seasonal changes-to condition the quality and mood of the interior space.”
Section and Side Elevation of Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel (Source: Architecture October 1988- https://www.usmodernist.org/AJ/A-1988-10.pdf)
Fay Jones died on 31 August, 2004 at Fayetteville, Arkansas after a prolonged illness. But he surely left behind architectural masterpieces that exude harmony with nature besides their unique aesthetic and structural qualities.
Ramneet Kaur is an architect who loves to write about architecture and believes that words do have the power to bring about change.