British architectural designer John Pawson became part of a longstanding tradition of erecting chapels as spiritual and architectural features in the landscape, after he was commissioned by the Siegfried and Elfriede Denzel Foundation to design a wayside chapel for a site in southwestern Germany.
The Siegfried and Elfriede Denzel Foundation is the initiator of the project Sieben Kapellen or Seven Chapels, whose purpose is to provide cyclists with a series of places in which to take shelter, but also to pause and reflect. This could represent a pilgrimage of the new age and an attempt towards establishing a sacred journey by the torch bearers for generations to come.
A common brief for the construction of all the seven chapels specified timber construction, with a cross in the vicinity and provision of seating.
Pawson, who designed one of the seven chapels – Wooden Chapel - recalled his first visit to the site, “I quickly formed the intention that people should encounter the chapel as a found object at the transitional point between the forest and open ground, rather than as a conventional work of architecture. The structure is, thus, framed as the simplest of gestures.” From certain perspectives, its mass appears as a pile of logs stacked up to dry; from others, the considered placement of the elements on a concrete plinth creates a more formal impression of a piece of sculpture.
Building in solid wood was the logical response to the chapel’s setting, as was the decision to subject the timber to minimum intervention. Openings cut into the envelope express the thickness of the wood, while a narrow entry deliberately recreates the sense of physical proximity encountered as one moves through the dense woods. Pawson collaborated with the Danish company, Dinesen, for the project; a company that he has worked with on multiple occasions.
Inside the chapel the glory of the cut timber can be felt instantly – in its warm hues, tactile surfaces, and the patterns of the sawn grain. Light levels have been kept deliberately low. Narrow clerestories set high along the length of the chapel on both sides allow a controlled influx of natural light to filter gently downwards through the space. The resulting dimness of the environment helps focus attention on the other two sources of light: on the elevated cross of coloured glass set into the end wall and on a low unglazed opening that graphically frames a view outward across the landscape, orientated to the church spire of the nearby village of Unterliezheim.
The scale, the simplicity, and the purpose of this church is clear in its making. Contrary to churches having high vaulted ceilings and layers of clerestory light filtering into the interiors to create a magical glow, the Wooden Chapel offers all the magic with the use of the same concepts for light, spatiality and spirituality, making one feel close to nature and god.
Name of the project: Wooden Chapel
Location: Unterliezheim, Germany
Client: Siegfried and Elfriede Denzel Foundation
Area: 30 sqm
Architect: John Pawson
Design team: Jan Hobel, Eleni Koryzi, Max Gleeson
Construction: Gumpp & Maier