Nicholas Burns' Chapel and Meditation Room is architecture as a clearing within a clearing

The spiritual edifice will eventually disappear into the powerfully natural site, as over time, vegetation will grow around, over and on the built forms, to become an essential ruin.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Apr 11, 2022

A sensorial, meditative architecture that draws one deeper into the elusive sense of time and being, the Chapel and Meditation Room by architect Nicholas Burns rests salient and full-fledged amid bubbling creeks, wise granite boulders nestled in a verdant oak forest within a 30-hectare private estate in Minho, Portugal. Studio Nicholas Burns could not have chosen a more apt, auspicious or picturesque location for this ensemble of spiritual forms, navigating the sweet space between architecture and the intangible sense of living, thinking and feeling. “The form is imagined as experienced rather than as an object. The idea is to intensify human experience by connecting us to nature,” shares the architect.

The Chapel and Meditation Room is conceived as a sensorial, meditative piece of architecture that draws from its surrounding nature | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
The Chapel and Meditation Room is conceived as a sensorial, meditative piece of architecture that draws from its surrounding nature Image: Peter Bennetts

Humble and restorative, The Chapel and Mediation Room heeds to no religion, but is at its heart, spiritual, devotional and contemplative. The concrete architecture is anchored to a knoll featuring several monumental boulders that remain spaced apart, as a prudent mélange of fluid and sturdy forms, that rise and dip amid the subsuming nature. The form plays imperceptible hide and seek between trees and the natural rock formations on site, positioning itself between the voids and interstices that naturally came about, while a fine array of lofty trees blessed with dense foliage accompany the built and natural. A faint clearing in the middle of the knoll presented itself as a “natural, logical and inevitable” locus for the chapel’s architecture, an architecture as “a clearing within a clearing”; its emergence only lost one tree, while all boulders were retained in their original position.  

The architecture atop a knoll heeds to no specific religion but is spiritual in nature | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
The architecture atop an isolated knoll heeds to no specific religion but is spiritual in nature Image: Peter Bennetts
The Chapel and Meditation Room is immersed in nature | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
The Chapel and Meditation Room is immersed in nature Image: Peter Bennetts
One of the initial intents was that it was not a religious building, as such. It started as a spiritual refuge; yet now it has a religious component to it.” - Nicholas Burns

As preamble, the architect simply walked alone through the landscape, for a week, over eight to 10 hours a day, to look for “power” capable enough to anchor the structures and its essence. Between several possibilities that the vast site provided, Burns settled on just this knoll. “Its power lay in how it seemed to strengthen the landscape by gathering it, by collecting its potential in one place, then radiating that potential in a manner inexhaustible,” he relays. The next logical step was to not have any preconceived ideas that would impose on the site’s potential, but to let it breathe, make them feel, and draw from it.

Aerial view of the The Chapel and Meditation Room | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
Aerial view of the The Chapel and Meditation Room Image: Peter Bennetts

“The Chapel gains in presence by the way it magnifies the knoll and puts the grove of trees around it into silhouette and relief against the high ridge behind: a modest parallel to the way the great stupa of Borobudur in Central Java—symbolically the cosmic mountain and pillar Meru—collects and anchors the circumscribing ring of mountains. As at Borobudur, this Chapel charges and activates its setting, and is in turn charged and activated by it,” elaborates Burns, an Australia-born and Bali-based architect.

The natural, hefty boulders and landscape drove the placement and planning of the chapel | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
The natural, hefty boulders and landscape drove the placement and planning of the chapel Image: Peter Bennetts

Overlooking a dense urban valley and several green hills nearby, the location enjoys crisp air and frequently fog laden evenings and mysterious mornings that envelop the stones and vegetation, furthering the pious feel of the place. Undulating patterns of light gently perfume the structure and where it rests, as well as the rough cut granite path that leads up to it. The ambience is set to awaken the senses – a sense of time, a sense of seasons, and a sense of place, as “the elemental things that are important for people to feel naturally deeper within themselves, rather than an aesthetic that is more the rational response to experience,” Burns says.

The building is designed to quietly disappear into the site, as  over time, the vegetation will grow around, over and on it | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
The building is designed to quietly disappear into the site, as over time, the vegetation will grow around, over and on it Image: Peter Bennetts

The elements of the landscape were regarded as building materials, as rooms, as spaces and as an integrated part of the cohesive experience of the chapel's architecture, and not as a separate entity, relays the studio. This also meant that the continuous, sinuous form was achieved to meander through their existing placements.

The entrance | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
The entrance Image: Peter Bennetts
Narrow slit windows illuminate the chapel | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
Narrow slit windows illuminate the chapel Image: Peter Bennetts

The water, an essential part of the design, is part of the building fabric, as much as the trees, the shifting topography, the boulders outside, the slit glass windows and the timber pews that take residence inside the spiritual haven. It is also symbolic, connecting and cleansing, like the water from the Baptismal font that purifies and sets dialogue with the Lord – as an unspoken ritual – and engages the sense rooting one to the place. The choreography of the design allows this water to pause on its meandering journey, from deep underground on the way to the river and eventually the ocean.

The building and its surrounding landscape was designed with an aim to be restorative and reflective, duly immersed and drawing from nature | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
The building and its surrounding landscape was designed with an aim to be restorative and reflective, duly immersed and drawing from nature Image: Peter Bennetts
"The idea was that the Chapel is supposed to be a calm, tranquil place, a restorative, reflective, beautiful space to spend time alone, and appreciate the landscape, draw your mind into the present, and hopefully have some ideas about whatever it is that you're doing in life." – Nicholas Burns

The plasticity and monolithic characteristics of concrete was a natural selection for Burns. Local ardosia is employed in parts with the intention to form part of the landscape, and contrast with the concrete, a more grounded sense versus the soft light. The materials are robust and timeless, with an intention of weathering over time, forming patinas and growing into the site. On the north, the concrete transitions into locally-sourced slate that becomes a stage for moss and lichen to grow. These slate walls enfold the small meditation room, courtyard as well as pocket reflective pools that harmonise as one cohesive being.  

The elements of the landscape were regarded as building materials instead of separate entities | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
The elements of the landscape were regarded as building materials instead of separate entities Image: Peter Bennetts

The orientation of the 159 sqm Chapel and Meditation Room follows specific dates and times that correspond to important events of the private client’s family. “The idea is that time is marked over generations at these points, forming very personal rituals. Deep shadows have the effect of drawing one into an abstract space while shafts of light connect to the sky and nature in a very direct way,” says Burns. The high openings here brings a slice of the sky in, and generates a feeling of floating upwards, towards the light. In the meditation room, a singular window frames the water, the boulder as well as the sky.

The form responds directly to the landscape, with a curving exterior that meanders between boulders and tree trunks | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
The form responds directly to the landscape, with a curving exterior that meanders between boulders and tree trunks Image: Peter Bennetts

The original concept was more of a retreat, a spiritual place rather than a religious place. The client introduced the religious aspect through the 17th century altar and activated the space for important family rituals, the first being their daughter’s baptism,” Burns indulges.

  • The form reaches the skies and remains anchored to the earth | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
    The form reaches the skies and remains anchored to the earth Image: Peter Bennetts
  • The exterior | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
    The exterior Image: Peter Bennetts

The entrance sequence of the contextual design is a tunnel made of compression corten steel, moving towards the pier towards the space that expands upwards, and as it does, it squeezes towards the sky. “So the idea is that you get a feeling you are going up. It is a very strong feeling,” says Burns. Up the stairs, one reaches the candle room where the ceremonial part where the 17th century altar faces pews to seat close to 60 visitors. “There was a very important baptism for the family performed in this space and it was filled with people with a beautiful calmness, and the choir there, the voices in the choir sounded extraordinary,” he adds.

The altar and nave are the only spaces of the chapel that carry a religious connotation | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
The altar and nave are the only spaces of the chapel that carry a religious connotation Image: Peter Bennetts

The candle room transforms into a transitional space which is neither architectural or landscape, an abstracted room, that provides “a sense of pause”. From here one saunters into the dark room, the contemplative meditation space, where a corner window focuses on the water, the stone and the sky as well as the tops of the trees. This space also revels in sensorial qualities, where small openings below bring in the smell of the water, as well as the sound of its subtle movement – “it is an abstracted space, yet the idea is to connect you deeper with the landscape and deeper into the sense of time,” says Burns.   

  • The eye is drawn upwards as one ventures into the building | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
    The eye is drawn upwards as one ventures into the building Image: Peter Bennetts
  • A series of steep steps lead up into the chapel's main space | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
    A series of steep steps lead up into the chapel's main space Image: Peter Bennetts

“The intention of the project was to create a series of inward facing, contemplative spaces without impacting on the historical buildings of the place as well as its natural context. The building is designed to be quiet and to disappear into the site; over time the vegetation will shroud the built forms, growing around, over and on the building. An essential ruin… The fading and aged characters are allowed to speak and tell stories of the past,” Burns elaborates.

The baptismal font is set against a narrow, slit window that throws light into the space | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
The baptismal font is set against a narrow, slit window that throws light into the space Image: Peter Bennetts

“As with the concept of ‘borrowing views’ in Chinese and Japanese landscape design, here the Chapel might borrow, or capitalise on, the innate strength and propensity of this site, turning it to advantage, refracting it inwards to charge the space of the Chapel, illuminating the experience of being within its embrace,” he concludes.

  • Plans | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
    Plans Image: Courtesy of Studio Nicholas Burns
  • North and south elevations | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
    North and south elevations Image: Courtesy of Studio Nicholas Burns
  • West and east elevations | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
    West and east elevations Image: Courtesy of Studio Nicholas Burns
  • Site plan | Chapel and Meditation room by Nicholas Burns | STIRworld
    Site plan Image: Courtesy of Studio Nicholas Burns

Project Details

Name: Chapel and Meditation Room
Location: Minho, Portugal
Area: 159 sqm
Year of completion: 2021
Architect: Studio Nicholas Burns

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