Take me to church, you’ll say

Chapels of love

To step inside today’s privately commissioned chapels is to give praise to the architects who designed them. We explore three of these unusual and meditative spaces.

Call to mind the Sistine Chapel. Perhaps from a visit you’ve paid to the Vatican, from art books or even from popular entertainment like The Young Pope and The Two Popes. The visuals you’re confronted with – of arguably the world’s most famous chapel – are of Michelangelo’s frescos and an abundance of marble. In part, they’re symbols of opulence, displays of wealth. In stark contrast, contemporary chapels (mostly intimate in comparison) have a new and daring design language. While far less ostentatious and decorated, they are no less thoughtfully designed. Their architectural forms and makeup have dramatically changed too. These attention-worthy structures often afford some of our most creative architects the opportunity to explore concepts that intrigue them.


Architect John Pawson

Location Bavarian Forest, Germany

Year 2017-2018

Materials Douglas fir, concrete, glass

What is it? Commissioned by the Siegfried and Elfriede Denzel Foundation, Wooden Chapel is one of seven contemplation spaces along one of the Bavarian Forest’s cycling paths. Briefed by his client to work primarily with wood, Pawson opted to keep the Douglas fir trunks as close to their natural state as possible so as to merge with their surroundings. The chapel has only two apertures – its narrow entrance and a small window that frames the church spire in the nearby village of Unterliezheim. Light filters into the dark, monastic interior through these openings, as well as through two narrow gaps that run the length of the 16-trunk-high structure.

The cross factor A thin cross is carved out of the wood at a narrow end of the structure, and filled with yellow-tinted glass.

Pawson on the chapel “It is just trunks of Douglas fir stacked on top of each other, a pile of logs stacked up to dry.”

Lifestyling loves The contrasting timber textures outside and in. While on the chapel’s exterior the wood looks almost freshly cut and treated, Pawson’s interior treatment accentuates the patterns of its sawn grain and earthy colour.


Architect MAPA

Location Maldonado, Uruguay

Year 2017

Materials Cross-laminated timber, steel, gridded metal, onyx

What is it? Part of the Sacromonte Landscape Hotel in Pueblo Edén, the Sacromonte Chapel is situated in the estate’s vineyard and includes a black metal box (a shrine to the Virgin of La Carrodilla, the patron saint of vineyards) inserted into one of the structure’s two slanted, cross-laminated timber walls. These walls don’t physically meet at their apex, nor do the shorter sides of the structure have walls, making for a chapel that’s open to the elements and connected to the landscape.

The cross factor A metal cross, created by Taller Capitán, rises out of the ground a short distance from the chapel and, with the moving sun, casts its shadow onto the interior of the chapel walls.

MAPA on the chapel “Simple and austere, its design assumes the challenge of conveying a powerful message using the lowest amount of resources possible.”

Lifestyling loves With a strong focus in the studio on building prefabricated structures, the MAPA team had the chapel’s component parts manufactured offsite. These were transported to the rural location and assembled within the space of a day.


Architect Nicholas Burns

Location Private estate, Northern Portugal

Year 2020

Materials Concrete, slate, steel, limestone, timber, glass

What is it? Positioned on a rocky knoll within a thirty-hectare estate, the chapel was commissioned by the estate’s owner as a space for both private and group reflection, the latter making it a much larger space than both Wooden and Sacromonte Chapels. Burns chose the knoll for its dramatic boulders and dense planting of trees and chose concrete as his primary material for its neutral surface both inside and out, thus focusing one’s attention on the landscape rather than the materials. The chapel’s northeast exterior walls, which enclose a meditation room lined in dark wood, are clad in slate, providing ample nooks for lichen and moss to root over time. They are surrounded by a number of reflective pools. The interior nave seats up to 60 people, and includes surfaces clad in limestone for the textural warmth it provides. Windows throughout are tall and narrow, positioned to allow early morning or late afternoon golden light to filter into the space.

The cross factor In place of a cross is an 18th century carved wooden altar, the focal point within the nave. Its gilded reredos (a decorative screen positioned behind an altar) shine golden in the chapel’s candlelight.

Burns on the chapel “The idea is that the landscape will grow around and envelope the building over time and become part of it.”

Lifestyling loves The seamless integration of traditionally ‘hard’ materials into the soft landscape. The chapel feels harmonious with its environment, and emerges from it as if a natural extension of it.




Words: Martin Jacobs
Photographs: Wooden Chapel: Felix Friedmann; Sacromonte Chapel: Tali Kimelman and Leonardo Finotti; Chapel and Meditation Room: Peter Bennetts