The Rothko Chapel has hired New York’s Architecture Research Office (ARO) to undertake renovation and master planning efforts for the iconic building. Originally designed by Howard Barnstone, FAIA, and Eugene Aubry, FAIA, and completed in 1971, the nondenominational chapel was created specifically to house 14 large-scale works by American painter Mark Rothko.
John and Dominique de Menil commissioned the chapel and the paintings as a gift to the city of Houston. The space was intended to be “an ecumenical house of worship where people can ‘meet and experience their brotherhood.’” Today, the space is a self-described “spiritual space, a forum for world leaders, a place for solitude and gathering. It’s an epicenter for civil rights activists, a quiet disruption, a stillness that moves.” Over the years it has hosted such luminaries as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Nobel Prize Laureate Rigoberta Menchú.
To better serve as a venue for large groups, the chapel’s board, which is chaired by Rothko’s son, Christopher Rothko, decided it was time for an update.
“Their mission really encompasses both contemplation, which is the experience of being within the chapel, and action,” says Adam Yarinsky, FAIA, ARO principal and co-founder. “The impetus behind the project comes from trying to strengthen both of those aspects behind their mission. There has always been an issue with light levels within the chapel and creating better control of daylight within the space, so that’s [one] goal.”
In addition to improving the lighting, ARO will upgrade interior acoustics, address aesthetic differences between the walls and ceiling, and update weatherproofing and security systems. A new structure on the site will accommodate guest services, conferences, meetings, administrative spaces, and guest housing for visiting artists and scholars — leaving the chapel itself as a quiet, contemplative space. “The goal is to preserve an experience,” Yarinsky says. “Any adjustments made must be very carefully considered so you’re not changing any quality the chapel has now.”
With the new drawing center at the Menil and improvements to the University of St. Thomas campus, the chapel’s district is also changing. ARO’s master plan will address these new neighbors by reorienting access to the site. The reflecting pool facing the chapel’s entrance, which is home to a Barnett Newman “Broken Obelisk” sculpture, will also be renovated to fix drainage problems and improve lighting. The chapel is working with conservators from The Menil Collection, who are currently tending to the sculpture’s deterioration.
The exterior of the chapel itself should remain more or less as-is. “At this stage, we don’t anticipate any significant, noticeable change to the exterior of the chapel,” Yarinsky says. “There’s a quality it has now that is historic, and also, a kind of neutrality it has on the exterior belies the richness that is experienced on the inside. I don’t think anyone perceives that to be a problem.”
The changes, it is to be hoped, will introduce the chapel to a new generation of activists and community members, opening it up to more events and reasserting its place at the center of Houston’s cultural scene.
Alyssa Morris is web editor of Texas Architect.