Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Eero Saarinen designed the non-denominational MIT Chapel in 1955. It is located opposite the Kresge Auditorium which was also designed by Saarinen.
The oval chapel is a cylindrical brick form constructed of rough and imperfect bricks which catch the sunlight on the textured surface. The building sits in a shallow moat and is supported by a series of low arches of different radii which rise out of the moat that reflects patterns of light onto the exterior wall of the chapel and evokes images of bridges spanning a river.
To enter the small chapel one walks from the public spaces surrounding the chapel into a small grove of birch trees enters through the timber doors which are located off the main oval and turns 180 degrees to head back through a enclosed glazed bridge into the circular chapel and is then drawn towards the light falling onto the white marble altar from the ceiling. The glass of the bridge evokes images of larger stained glass windows in traditional churches and creates a separation from the world outside. The textured internal brick walls and the full height metal sculpture by Harry Bertoia allow the glittering light to cascade down into the space from the circular skylight above. Additional twinkling light is reflected off the small moat and into the space through shallow slits in the walls.
I have been surprised by how Saarinen’s buildings are smaller than I expected, they are small gems of mid-century modern architecture that are rich in ideas and materiality which is intensified by Saarinen’s ability to strongly express architectural ideas with the given scale and materials. Saarinen is not attempting to create the power of his architecture by increasing the scale of any one gesture rather making each element the appropriate scale and designing with an elegance which compresses the ideas and architectural gestures into dense and rich architecture.