• View of the middle “rain” court, showing the rich integration of natural and built elements. The boxes projecting from the wall contain mirrors that reflect the sky into the adjacent court. Photo by Charles Davis Smith, AIA

Project  Saint Michael and All Angels Columbarium, Dallas
Client  Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Architect  Max Levy Architect
Design Team  Max Levy, FAIA; Clint Brister; Matt Fajkus, AIA; Tom Manganiello; Matt Morris; D’Jelma Perkison; Jason David Smith
Photographer  Charles Davis Smith, AIA

We are all subject to the effects of time — the beauty and the burden. Architecture is held to the same standard: experienced in time, a project deals with seasonal variations, memory, trends, and timelessness. Max Levy Architect’s Saint Michael and All Angels Columbarium takes maximum advantage of the conditions of time with a clear concept, a heightened sense of craft, and artful inventiveness. Tucked away at a quiet intersection next to the church it serves, the columbarium replaces an open lawn with an equally calm, open-air brick structure. Levy explains: “Our site is framed by mature oak trees. These trees also frame a view of the sky above the site, so this was the starting place for the design. It so happens that the animating attributes of the sky — wind, rain, the passage of sun and clouds — carry with them spiritual qualities. A nice coincidence.”

The columbarium design is not an architectural sound bite that calls attention to itself, yet it is anything but dull. The design jury clearly understood the essence of the project. Thomas Hacker, FAIA, founding principal of Thomas Hacker Architects, comments: “There are a few times that I’ve been on juries like this for design awards where a project presents itself in a way that is so simple and so understated but is about something that is so powerful and so important for us as human beings that it sort of rises above the kind of norm in terms of its poetic content.” The columbarium at once creates a reassuring, uplifting place for visitors, with a fundamental consideration of the position of the visitor throughout the experience. For example, benches are integrated throughout and positioned to allow visitors to sit “with” a niche rather than confront it. The moments are “there to be discovered,” says Levy, with details such as mirrors placed in the wall that juxtapose a reflected sky with the solid masonry walls and niches, “appealing to visitors, design peers, and the imagination of a child.”

Walking through the columbarium, it’s clear that Levy has created an ordered whole that masterfully leverages sequence, scale, proportion, and materiality to reinforce the connection between the physical and the spiritual: dual trinities bound together in a series of courts that make the elements of wind, water, and sun visible. Dan Wheeler, FAIA, founding principal of Wheeler Kearns Architects explains that, “in reading the proposal or agenda for the project, it’s about three things: the wind, the rain, and the sky. Those three things were not overdone. They were architectural; they were specific; but we found that that gave meaning for each one of the three tiers of the spaces as they were created.” The harmony of materials completes the design intent — the brick, in particular, referencing the hand-built nature while subtly explaining the structure with intimate details.

Wheeler puts the design in perspective: “My office has had some experience with this type of project, and frankly, the lowest common denominator is just to go and buy a columbarium. You buy a packaged unit. And this was actually an act of architecture to elevate that kind of assignment. So we acknowledge that this was a quiet but important piece to include in the repertoire for this jury.” The project is sure to exceed visitors’ expectations; it’s a piece of design that doesn’t let go and instead continues to unfold, the longer and more closely you look.

Ron Stelmarski, AIA, is the design director for Texas practice at Perkins+Will.

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