The Rothko Chapel is a windowless brick octagon, 48 feet in diameter, whose sole source of light is a central oculus. It is a somber chamber of shadows and the 14 paintings by Mark Rothko that surround it are themselves shadows, rectangles of black or deep plum. It ought to be as inviting as the bottom of a well. And yet it is unexpectedly uplifting, and it seems to speak not of despair and oblivion but of the human spirit in all its proud, frail dignity.
The chapel, which opened in February 1971, has just completed its $30 million restoration by the Architecture Research Office (ARO) of New York. That restoration is subtle to the point of invisibility. The walls have been strengthened, the entrance vestibule uncluttered, and the acoustics and lighting immeasurably improved, while Rothko’s paintings themselves were left untouched. As it happens, they are the principal beneficiaries of the restoration.
The idea of the chapel dates to 1964, when John and
Dominique de Menil,
Houston’s celebrated art patrons, visited Rothko’s New York studio. They saw there the murals that he created for the Four Seasons and famously refused to deliver to the restaurant, not wanting the “rich bastards” who were its customers to enjoy them. The Menils made him a better offer, to create a new cycle of paintings for a building where they would not be incidental decoration but the main point. They combined the commission with another of their projects, the gift of a chapel to Houston’s University of St. Thomas, whose art department Dominique then headed. Their architect was
whose house for the Menils was one of his first realized buildings.
To the surprise of no one, Rothko and Johnson did not play well together. In 1967 the commission was taken from Johnson and given to
who executed his scheme with only minor modifications. The Menils and the university also parted ways, and in 1968, before construction began, their chapel became an independent institution that would be open to nondenominational use and private contemplation, and would also stress civil rights. Over the years it has happily accommodated every type of service, from Jewish weddings to Zoroastrian purification rites. This is the great paradox of the chapel, that a building and a cycle of paintings designed explicitly for Catholic worship should make everyone feel at home.
The physical fabric of a building is normally the focus of a restoration, but here it was something intangible—the total sensory immersion that Rothko intended.
the principal designer, paid particular attention to the sequence of spaces that the visitor experiences. The chapel is entered from the south, which can feel like a sudden plunge from blinding Texas sunshine into pitch blackness. To buffer the transition, he added a modest outer vestibule and modulated its lighting so that it drops in stages, giving the eyes time to adjust. He also introduced acoustic-absorbent plaster into the lobby, something to which the arriving visitor responds unconsciously, shifting to hushed tones.
From the beginning, the chapel did battle with Texas’s pitiless sunlight, something not anticipated by Rothko, who never traveled to Houston before taking his life in 1970. An obtrusive light baffle installed by Ove Arup 20 years ago has now been swept away by the ingenious lighting system of George Sexton Associates. Believing that the visitor should always be aware of the changing sunlight, that firm has worked to mute its ferocity. Carefully aligned louvers direct its rays onto the walls, while diffusing glass lessens their intensity. Equally clever is the nighttime lighting. In a ring beneath the oculus are eight digital projectors, each directed against a mirror, their beams fine-tuned to compensate for any glare or hot spots. The result is an absolutely even, softly diffused light.
Under these conditions, one notices what no photograph can capture: The paintings are not flat and lifeless panels of monochrome black, but hover over a deep burgundy underpainting, smoldering like banked fire. It can be no coincidence that Rothko outfitted a Catholic chapel with 14 paintings, the same number as the Stations of the Cross, the traditional image cycle depicting the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
Rothko’s friendly rival, had recently painted a highly publicized series of 14 paintings bearing that name. (Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” was erected on the formal plaza in front of the chapel as a memorial to
Martin Luther King Jr.
, underscoring its activist aims.)
The most arresting painting is the last that the visitor discovers, just behind the entrance. A strip of dark chestnut red runs along the bottom, reminding us, as Dominique de Menil liked to say, that Rothko’s colors were those of “blood and wine.” But one hardly needs the sacramental allusion to feel a profound sense of the infinite in the restored chapel. Its stillness is overpowering, all the better to listen for what she called “the unbearable silence of God.”
—Mr. Lewis teaches architectural history at Williams and reviews architecture for the Journal.
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