From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages. Thorncrown Chapel was broadcast on the 14th August 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Forests are places of otherness. Which is why they’ve long been used for human rituals of all kinds. Like the weddings that take place in Thorncrown Chapel, a magical structure nestled among the trees of the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. It’s a building so attuned to its leafy setting that you might dismiss it as almost glib. And yet, since it opened in 1980, it’s proved to be one of America’s most popular, and even important buildings. It’s certainly a showstopper. At first glance it looks as though someone has simply glazed-in an avenue of slender trees and slung a roof over it. But with its dark-grey timber columns rising up and crossing over to form an angular network anchored by a repeating diamond of black steel, it’s an abstracted version of the forest. Its architect was Euine Fay Jones, who said that his inspiration was the Sainte Chappelle in Paris, the glorious 13th century building just a few steps from Notre Dame which was built to house sacred relics, including, it was believed, the crown of thorns worn by Christ on the cross. With its soaring space and vast windows set within a delicate framework of stone, there is certainly a similarity. But there’s something else at play at Thorncrown. The windows of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie houses in suburban Chicago are famous for the geometric tracery of their windows, which Wright called light screens. The designs are outlined in black and were inspired by Japanese shoji screens, blurring the boundary between inside and out in a more enchanting way than opaque glass ever could. Thorncrown is like one of these gorgeous windows made into a three dimensional structure. The reference is not accidental. Jones was not only inspired to study architecture after he saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s luminous Johnson Wax building for the first time, but he became an avid follower of the master, spending time in Wright’s desert studio in Arizona as well as at the heart of the Wright kingdom, at Taliesin outside Chicago. These were Wright’s final years and it’s as though Jones decided he would carry the flame forward. Jones was also mentored by another extraordinary master of decoration and form, Bruce Goff, who encouraged him to teach architecture, first at Oklahoma university and then at Arkansas. So when a man called Jim Reed sought an architect who understood the special qualities of the landscape of the Ozarks, Jones was the man.
When you read about the Chapel you’re given facts – the amount of glass used, the weight of stone needed for its base, the way that it was built only with materials that two men could carry. What the facts hide is the startling beauty of the building itself. Its transparency means it’s spectacular in every season and in all light. Jones would go on to build other chapels, most of them equally striking. They became his speciality.
Setting a chapel in dense forest has a deep significance. While the client wanted to highlight the glory of God’s creation, there’s the inescapable spirit of the land itself here, reminiscent of the temples set within forests in Japan, venerating the earth and its animals. America has a fine tradition of modern chapels that embrace the landscape, from the Chapel of the Holy Cross set among the red rocks around Sedona to the Wayfarer’s Chapel in California, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, and perched above the crashing waves of the Pacific, both built in the 1950s. The melodrama of religion is addressed but something more is harnessed – the energy of dreams and imagination. Maybe they’re the same thing. Thorncrown chapel unites medieval history, Mother Earth and orthodox religion through the beauty of modern architecture, elevating rituals like weddings into something perhaps more resonant. And there’s certainly nothing glib about that.