“Sunshine, projected through colored glass, creates a nonmaterial weaving of light that moves across the room as Earth spins in space. This chapel brings a sense of spirituality to the urban core.”
- Jim Olson, FAIA, Design Principal, Olson Kundig Architects
An American Architecture Award winner, Gethsemane Church, is a 64,000 square-foot building that was finished in 2012 and is located in Chicago, Illinois. The removal of a 50-year-old brick building was required as part of the project. Property values in Seattle’s downtown area had soared along with the number of individuals living on the streets who depended on the city’s oldest church for shelter. An overwhelming majority of church members voted to stay there and rebuild to better serve their neighbors, rather than sell the property.
The $12 million worth project involved remodeling the main sanctuary and chapel of the existing church, as well as the design of a garden and a new Parish life Centre with offices, library, fellowship hall, kitchen, and social services. SMR Architects developed a five-story, fifty-unit affordable housing building above the parish activity Centre as the Church’s last expansion.
Even though Gethsemane Church was intended to be constructed on a shoestring budget, Jim Olson, the lead architect from Olson Kundig Architects, visited the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and upheld the idea that the two chapels have a connection. He mentions, after studying Sainte-Chapelle, “What that space does with the big bands of colored light coming through the glass is what I’d like to translate into in a modern setting.” (J. Olson). However, the architecture of Gethsemane Church was dealing with a different challenge, that of integration. It was built over a century ago and then rebuilt in the 1950s. The surrounding neighborhood had rapidly gentrified and changed over the years. The elder churchgoers were suddenly surrounded by the younger generation living in silver and steel complexes in the area.
Olson Kundig’s interpretation of Gethsemane Church retains the Christian imagery and stained-glass windows that speak to a more traditional neighborhood. It is, however, contemporary and eye-catching enough to keep the church from disappearing into the background while elegant restaurants and independent stores sprout up. “Even though this building was tiny compared to all the ones around it, it would become important because it’s so different,” says Jim Olson.
“Openness to the outside and the pedestrian experience was important.” (J. Olson)
Anyone who passes by Gethsemane is then drawn in by the jewel-like corner chapel, which is accompanied by an outdoor area protected from Seattle’s frequent rains. The transparent and striking glass that defines the chapel projects a warm color into the street, producing a beacon of light that emphasizes the sacred spaces’ presence among the high-rise neighborhoods. It also allows passers-by to peep in, potentially piquing their curiosity about what is going on.
Form and function
The incorporation of the warm-toned handmade windows results in shifting patterns of oversized cross shapes that are reflected onto the inside, generating a visual tapestry of color that responds to changing daylight. As a result, the polished-concrete floor is bathed in a rainbow of colors, as if it were stained glass. The 32-foot-long by 20-foot-wide chapel is defined by vertical strips of colored art glass that wrap the 21-foot-tall room on three sides bringing ample natural light into the church building. This feature stands in stark contrast to the considerably bigger and internally oriented main sanctuary, which has just a skylight and a series of clerestory windows connecting it to the outer world.
Another feature of the Gethsemane building includes the space between the new housing complex and the old sanctuary, which serves as a channel for soft natural light to penetrate the sanctuary area and other internal areas, reinforcing the sense of tranquility desired in spiritual settings.
According to the designers, the exterior cladding connects the different elements, both practically and metaphorically. Steel panels in ocher, terra-cotta, and deep crimson overlay horizontally and vertically to evoke Christian crosses or woven cloth. The motif continues on the planted roof terrace, where several species of sedums create a crisscross effect visible from the neighboring office and residential structures. “The pattern is indicative of weaving the pieces of the program together,” explains Jim Olson, principal of Olson Kundig.
A small meditation garden connecting the chapel and fellowship hall, where plants grow beneath slab benches, creates a balance between openness and outreach. A figure of Christ stands beside the entrance of the church in a tiny garden, forming a ‘sidewalk chapel’ for pedestrian passers-by.
It is also noteworthy, that apart from being the American Award winner, The Gethsemane Church project by Olson Kundig Architects has also achieved the Evergreen Sustainable Development Standard.
Project Cost: $12 Million
Location: Downtown Seattle, USA
Area: 64,000 square feet
Design Firm: Olson Kundig Architects
Design Principal: Jim Olson
Project Manager: Bob Jakubik
Team Members: Jerry Garcia
- Olsonkundig.com. n.d. Olson Kundig — Gethsemane Lutheran Church. [online] Available at: <https://olsonkundig.com/projects/gethsemane-lutheran-church/> [Accessed 18 November 2021].
- Chi-athenaeum.org. n.d. The Chicago Athenaeum. [online] Available at: <https://www.chi-athenaeum.org/the-2014-awards/2014/10/01/gethsemane-lutheran-church/> [Accessed 18 November 2021].