• The architects stained the plaza’s paving a darker color to prepare the eyes for the lighting inside. - photo by Elizabeth Felicella

The Rothko Chapel
Renewal and Campus Expansion (Phase One)

The Rothko Chapel is 50 years old this February, and it has never looked better, thanks to a studious update by Architecture Research Office. For those unfamiliar with the project, it is an essential part of one of the great high-low culture visitor experiences in Houston: an afternoon wandering the Lancaster Place subdivision, with its dreamlike collection of bungalows (all painted grey, with white trim), taking in the works of art at the Menil Collection and puzzling over Rothko’s enigmatic paintings within the chapel’s mute brick walls, then heading down the street to drink Lone Star Beer at the West Alabama Ice House and eat spicy delicacies from the Tacos Tierra Caliente food truck, which sits in the parking lot of a grimy strip center. I can’t think of a better place to contemplate the interrelationships among Etruscan amphorae, the surrealism of René Magritte, the seductive powers of habanero salsa (you know you shouldn’t, but you do it anyway), and the social pluralism of nail salons. 

But of all the cultural attractions in this condensed corner of a decentralized and far-flung metropolis, in my opinion the Rothko Chapel has the most gravity. This is in part due to the fact that it is many things at once: a consecrated interfaith chapel, an art gallery containing 14 mammoth site-specific paintings from Rothko’s dark period, and a center for the promotion of global human rights and environmental justice. In spite of this manifold program, the chapel is exceptionally focused on a conceptual basis. In the context of art and architectural history, it occupies an intersectional zone — it is a prime example of the mid-20th-century drive to imbue modernist abstraction with history and tradition. 

Up until now, however, conceptually-focused was as far as the chapel went. In terms of execution, it left a lot to be desired. When it first opened in 1971, it was roundly panned by critics, who took issue with its common construction and the poor quality of its lighting. The structure is cinderblocks clad with St. Joe brick on the exterior, and on the interior are plaster walls and an asphalt floor, scored to look like paving blocks. (Apparently, Rothko originally wanted it to be all exposed concrete, like Louis Kahn’s First Unitarian Church of Rochester.) The low-slung skylight, supported by aluminum mullions with exposed bolts, was unfiltered, letting in too much of the bright Texas sun and washing out the subtleties of the paintings. The electric lighting scheme — directional spotlights dangling down from or recessed into the ceiling — was no better, spreading light unevenly at best.  

The critics’ severe disappointment and harsh words (Dore Ashton described it as “a Southern minister’s fundamentalist idea of sinlessness”) can in part be chalked up to their high expectations for the project. The chapel’s contributors, after all, were almost exclusively A-list: There was no more revered painter at the time than Rothko, and John and Dominique de Menil, the clients, were well on their way to American art patron sainthood. Philip Johnson, perhaps the most influential, if not the best, American modern architect, had a hand in the design early on, and Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry, who were lesser known but nonetheless very important to the development of a regional modernism in Houston, completed it. With a team like that, how could the outcome be anything less than an unadulterated triumph?

The full story of the chapel’s design is convoluted, troubled, and too long to tell here. (Those in search of more detail can reference “Rothko Chapel: An Oasis for Reflection” by Pamela Smart and Stephen Fox, out now from Rizzoli.) Importantly, Rothko and his assistants made the paintings in a mock-up of the chapel they built in a former carriage house on East 69th Street in Manhattan. The mock-up was an important part of the process of achieving Rothko’s intention of creating a synthesis between art and architecture. The proportions of the paintings and the proportions of the walls correlate. For example, the cutouts in the walls for ingress and egress, access to storage, etc., might be mistaken for yet more painted panels, and might signal that the paintings are themselves portals, capable of transporting one elsewhere. 

The trouble can be seen right away: The daylight entering Rothko’s Manhattan studio and that to be expected on an average sunny day in Houston are completely different. Johnson had wanted to place the skylight atop a pyramid soaring high above the inner sanctum, an idea that could have controlled the interior lighting condition, but which, along with the other Johnsonian idea of placing the building atop a raised berm, Rothko vetoed. This disagreement about how to handle the skylight ultimately led to Johnson’s departure from the project. Rothko wanted the building to be low-lying, humble, and entered from the ground plane, much like the carriage house where he completed the paintings. As a result, the skylight rests directly atop a ceiling that is only roughly 20 ft high. This decision created precedent for the humble quality of the Menil Collection buildings, which are also low-lying and rest on the ground plane, but it presented a daylighting challenge that was not addressed in the original design. What could you expect, though? Rothko killed himself while the chapel was under construction, and Barnstone left the project in 1968 following an episode of severe depression. The remarkable thing is that it was completed at all. 

From the beginning, or at least since the critics were done chewing it up and spitting it out, the chapel has been trying to fix its daylighting problem. First a drapery was drawn across the skylight, then a scrim was employed, and then two iterations of baffles took their turn. The most recent of these, completed in 2000, was designed by Houston architect Jim McReynolds and London-based engineering firm Arup. It was among the first architectural lighting projects where a computer was used to calculate lumens, and the light levels were indeed brought within acceptable parameters. Qualitatively, however, the solution was a dud. It did not create an atmosphere conducive to the sort of spiritual communion its creators had in mind, let alone approach the benchmark set by other Texas buildings known for their deft handling of the phenomenology of sunlight: the Kimbell, the Menil, etc. 

In order to address this and other shortcomings, the chapel launched a $30 million capital project called “Opening Spaces.” In 2016, it hired ARO to do a master plan with two main goals: renovate the building to bring it better in line with Rothko’s intent, and support the foundation’s ongoing and expanding justice mission. Programming for the latter, which includes hosting civil rights and environmental leaders from around the world for award ceremonies and lectures, had always been done in the chapel itself, adding downtime between events and increasing wear and tear. To better accommodate this component while polishing the integrity of the chapel itself, the decision was made to add more buildings to the campus, in two phases. The first phase, which opened to the public in September, includes a visitor center and an energy facility. Phase Two will add a program center, as well as an administrative and archive building, and will renovate one of the neighborhood’s historic bungalows as a guest house. New landscape design was also commissioned from Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW), which is currently involved in the refresh of Houston’s Memorial Park.  

ARO’s handling of the chapel is impeccable. Their task was not to restore the building to its original condition, but to remake it closer to its creators’ vision than at any point in the past. While fixing the lighting was a primary objective, it wasn’t the only thing to be done. Preparing visitors’ eyes to look at Rothko’s paintings started outside, where the plaza’s exposed aggregate paving was stained a slightly darker color to reduce glare. The entry sequence was also re-orchestrated. A previous renovation had added glass doors between the vestibule and the chapel for humidity control. ARO removed these and shifted the airlock to the narthex, moving the existing door further out within its brick portal and adding a replica of this door deeper within. The bookstore that had once greeted visitors in the vestibule was moved to the new visitors center across Sul Ross Street, leaving the chapel free of commerce. Acoustic plaster was used in the vestibule and within the chapel to dampen noise, and the HVAC system was moved across the street into the new energy facility, deepening the silence inside. Paint colors within the vestibule and in the chapel itself were also toned down. 

The feeling in the vestibule is very much one of sensory deprivation. Lancaster Place is by no means a raucous urban district, but entering this space immediately shifts one’s consciousness, muting such comforting distractions as bird calls and the occasional passing car and making one distinctly aware of the crashing silence that undergirds our every waking moment. 

While the new entry sequence is a vast improvement, what ARO pulled off inside the chapel is even more praiseworthy. The architects teamed up with lighting designers George Sexton Associates to create a new skylight and a new supplementary electric lighting scheme. Sexton built a one-inch-equals-one-foot model on the roof of its office in Washington D.C. to try out the qualitative experience of the solution, allowing the team to test the color of the light and the color of the ceiling, which is a different grey than that of the walls. The skylight they came up with has fixed louvers that push daylight toward the paintings. Sexton did something similar at the Brandywine River Museum in Pennsylvania. The electric lighting scheme is made up of digital projectors embedded in the ring around the skylight that point down at mirrors that reflect light onto the walls. Sexton had also used this solution before, to illuminate the Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History. To round out the lighting solution, ARO moved the back wall of the chapel’s apse, which holds the main triptych, six inches inward, which eliminated a shadow from the soffit that once cut off the top of the paintings.

Unlike the previous baffled daylighting solution, the new skylight is more connected to changes in the outside environment. The quality of the light it admits — at least on one sunny morning in August — has an almost silvery cast to it. It is cool and diffuse, much like the sort of light one would expect to enter the skylight of a carriage house on East 69th Street in Manhattan. In this light, the paintings are exceedingly legible. I saw colors in their finely mottled surfaces I’d never noticed previously: reds and purples, browns and blacks. One unnerving thing about the chapel is that, with these looming paintings on all eight walls of its octagonal, Byzantine plan, no matter where you turn or which painting you look at, there is one at your back, looking at you. And as the light fluctuates with changes outside, hour by hour, minute by minute, the paintings themselves seem to move, almost as though they’re breathing. 

Back outside, the new landscape by NBW, while still in its infancy, promises to be neater than before, though not so composed as to ruin the charming informality of the neighborhood. The designers removed the bamboo thicket from around the reflecting pool and replaced it with a cordon of river birch trees. Allées of river birch punctuate the lawn to the east of the chapel as well, offering the building and the plaza a little screening from this side, as well as setting up a zone for contemplation among dappled light and rustling leaves. 

The team decided not to add any new construction on this block so as not to complicate the relationship among the chapel, the reflecting pool, and Broken Obelisk. So all new construction either is or will be across Sul Ross Street. The first phase of the project brought us the visitors center, which is a tasteful little building, half glass and half St. Joe Brick cladding — to signal its connection to the chapel — and a generous brise soleil. The energy facility, which sits behind the welcome center, is currently clad in HardiePlank, but, as it is the first part of what will become the program center, it will eventually boast a cedar jacket. That second phase building, along with the new administrative and archive building, will one day frame a public plaza, which will be a nice urban addition to the area. 

The new construction does, however, come at a cost. Two of the primordial Lancaster Place bungalows have already been demolished to make way for the expanded program, and two more, the ones that currently sit next to the chapel, will go in the second phase (a fifth has been conserved and moved to become a guest house). While there is nothing particularly remarkable about these little houses in and of themselves, taken together, as they must be with their identical paint jobs, they create a surreal context for the world-class art institutions that exist in their midst. Neither the Menil nor the Rothko Chapel would be what they are without them, and, considering that there currently exists no plan for their preservation, we must worry about their future. It’s a reminder that one possible consequence of any attempt at renewal is that, in polishing away the rough edges, often that which is removed is exactly what made the object in question so special. 

Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect. 

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