Monday, February 06, 2012

visit to thorncrown chapel

we had meant to make this an earlier post, but other life issues held sway over our schedule...; ]

back over thanksgiving holiday, we took a drive to eureka springs, arkansas to clear our heads before the winter mayhem.  although initially sunny and crisp, it eventually became a dew touched and clammy trip, but not so much as to dampen the spirit of the thing.  the Ozarks through Missouri and Arkansas are actually quite warm [texturally] with their buttery limestone hills, topped with beds of wheaty red tall grass.  all at once the trees became dense forests-- tall & thick walls with soft leafy floors.

but why arkansas for a getaway, you ask?  one very good architectural reason--e. fay jones and his thorncrown chapel--completed in 1980.  constructed with modest means of 2x4s and field stone, the design is contrastingly rich in complexity and layers.  it has become a pilgrimage rest stop of sorts for many people to take in the nealry unobstructed connection to nature through Architecture of the highest order.  the magnificent play of light and structural lightness helps the place appear as if the trees themselves somehow intelligently grew to form the chapel.

chapel office on the approach path [also designed by jones]

south elevation & entry to thorncrown chapel

the 2x4 truss latticework above the entry

interior looking toward the alter

pew seating with view to the adjacent hillside

some backstory behind the structure:
thorncrown was conceived by private property owner Jim Reed, after foregoing his original plan to build a retirement dream home on the site.  so many visitors would stop at the site to take in a view of the surrounding ozarks that he sought to share it with everyone rather than lock them out.  with a very modest budget, he sought to provide travelers with a non-denominational space for contemplation and reflection.  e. fay jones kept the meager sum in mind and designed the structure based upon elements small enough for a few men to carry through the woods with two hands.  thus the major structural columns at both ends are built-up 2x12 posts, with the remaining 2x4 trusses fabricated on the cast in place concrete slab using a template truss frame repeated as many times as required.  the wood frames were then tilted up into place at approximately 30-inches on center and tied together with supplementary wood framing.  the materials may sound cheap and standard, but the care and craftsmanship is immediately apparent upon closer inspection.

plan, section & west elevation

a small space, measuring only 24ft x 60ft x 50ft H., the chapel feels infinitely larger due to the 6,000 sq ft of glass for walls & roof.  from the drawings, one can see a reference to some of the most inspirational structures of the same building type--gothic cathedrals--although with the structure now supportive from the inside.  jones often referred to his work as celebrating the "operative opposite", which emulated historical architecture by not copying it, but re-interpreting it with beautiful inversion.  it's as if the exoskeleton of flying buttresses of the cathedral have been transmogrified to an introverted, meditative experience of light, shadow & transparency.


window sill detail [portion of custom lamp above]

for plenty more detailed information on the construction of the chapel, visit the University of Arkansas Library Archives of the Fay Jones Collection.  Some great images that give some insight into the craftsmanship, building sequence and integration of the design/build process.

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