back in h-town: chapel of st. basil

Alrighty, peeps. This is my last Houston post. Mostly because, well … I’m not in Houston anymore! And it’ll probably be a while before I return again to the land of sun and Tex-Mex. This series of “Back in H-Town” posts have all dealt with Houston art museums and architecture associated with them in the downtown area. So I’m going to end with one of my “favorite” works of architecture in Houston. Quotations are needed, because there’s so much wrong with this thing, but that in turn makes it fascinating.

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This monstrosity, ladies and gentlemen, is the Chapel of St. Basil. I visited shortly before the new year, so they still had their Christmas decorations up. It is located on the University of St. Thomas (UST) campus – a stone’s throw from the Menil and Rothko Chapel – and was designed by American architect Philip Johnson (also architect of the Rothko Chapel). Johnson designed the university’s Academic Mall, the long two-story arcades on either side of the chapel, way back in the 1950s (on recommendation of the Menils) … but back then he was relatively unknown and his chapel design was rejected … so this chapel wasn’t completed until 1997, after Johnson had become super famous and was really old. In other words, this was one of Johnson’s last buildings, was after his high modernism phase, and came at a time when he was probably having a lark and could do whatever he wanted because people would still worship him.

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Basically there are three elements: the white stucco cube (with the entrance flap), the gold-leafed sphere (actually a semi-sphere dome), and the black granite plane (that doubles as the bell tower), and the intersection of these three perfect forms (cube, sphere, plane) form the chapel. I actually wrote a paper on the chapel in my senior year of college for an architectural criticism course. The entrance sequence, internal layout, natural lighting system, and exterior form are actually quite intriguing. I guess those are things I find similar with the Rothko Chapel, with Johnson playing around with the archetype of a chapel. However, since the Chapel of St. Basil holds services, its program and elements are more typical than the Rothko Chapel, so inside there are pews, religious statuary, an altar, et cetera.

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But … in the picture above, do you see the giant tilted cross? Yeah … there’s a giant tilted cross in the side of the cube that’s only viewable from the prayer garden and the street beyond. The official explanation is that it represents the tilt of Jesus carrying the cross, but it seems heretical and reminiscent of the Russian suprematists. Also given that Philip Johnson was gay and not Catholic, but here he was designing a chapel for a private Catholic university … it makes you wonder if he had a smirk on his face as he sketched and why the university let him run wild. UST’s new logo actually incorporates the chapel in its design and they’ve fully embraced this piece of architecture. And yet … it’s atrocious. But immensely fascinating.

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