Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again.
Two years ago we began a very special project! It was a unique opportunity for us both as consultants and a custom Art Glass studio. We were asked to help transform a large unused office into a sacred space at a state-of-the-art women's hospital.
Our design goal was to create a non-denominational chapel that would blend seamlessly with the architectural intent of the project, which was to construct “a family oriented, feminine building,” as design and architectural partners VOA and OWP/P put it.
After studying the architect's intention and design, we worked directly with the Foundation (the stewardship arm of the hospital), the healthcare art consultants AAR (American Art Resources) and the Donors themselves. We aimed for an environment that worked with the feminine curves of the building and that lent itself to both solace and celebration. The result was a deeply meaningful architectural surround using illuminated crystal panels carved with symbols of fruitfulness, hope, and calm.
The location was Chicago’s esteemed Prentice Women’s Hospital, now in a new million-square-foot, state-of-the-art building. The lobby of this amazing institution looks like it belongs in the most elegant high-end hotel. This is truly one of the most beautiful hospitals I have ever been in! Everything is curved and feminine, soft, spacious, welcoming. It's no mean feat to create a feminine feeling in a 17-story downtown Chicago skyscraper!
For the opening of this esteemed hospital in 2008, we crafted a Donor Tribute to Abra Rockefeller Prentice Wilkins, one of Chicago's most treasured philanthropists and an energetic advocate for women’s health. Her generous gift of $10 million helped Northwestern Memorial Hospital to split off its women’s health services into this new building, which now includes the largest birthing center in the Midwest.
The office we would be transforming into a sacred space was on the third floor. Its windows overlooked the lobby two stories below. The chapel would provide a place of sanctuary, spiritual connection and solitude for those in need of comfort — or just a break from the stress of a busy medical setting. The naming donors were the delightful Mathews family, and it was to be called the Mathews Chapel.
Before I explain the imagery and other details of our work, let’s jump to the really fun part — a time-lapse video of the transformation of the window wall of this empty space into a carved crystal “orchard” 8 feet high by 19 feet wide. (Our thanks to Tom Prost and Ben Varnau of Movco Media Productions, who created the "video.")
We began our transformation of this space by closing off the noisy view of the cement landscape outside and creating full window coverings in the form of warm, multi-colored backers. Their colors would shine through the etched glass to give it life and allow us to control the quality of light inside the room, thus creating a focused meditative space. (At right, Terry Holleman and I work on painting the backing board.) Terry, who is also our cabinet maker, created exquisite makora hardwood brackets to match the extensive interior paneling on the first two floors of the hospital. These brackets hold the art glass panels top and bottom and house the custom multicolored LEDs we programmed to light up the carved glass. Below the brackets and extending to the floor, we installed cream-colored piano-polished laquered panels.
The chapel is a virtual almond orchard in blossom, softly lit, silent and welcoming. Sitting, praying or meditating in the Mathews Chapel, visitors enjoy the simple beauty and lacy quality of the delicate almond branches and blooms, while feeling embraced in a protective bower of trees. It is as if they are taking sanctuary in "God's garden." Nature is a theme that creates calm and serenity. It is spiritual without being directly connected to any specific denomination or belief system.
Amri Studio graphic designer Arlene and I chose almond trees because they are highly revered in many cultures. They are a symbol for fruitfulness, thus perfectly suited to a women’s health center. In the Jewish tradition, almond blossoms were the model for the flower cups on the Menorah. The almond itself is an ancient symbol of divine approval or favor. It also suggests the protection of valuable contents by a strong shell. This is a parallel to the function of a hospital, and to the purpose of our body, at the heart of which lies our precious spirit, our sacred light.
The almond shape has appeared for centuries in artwork as the halo around Christ and the Virgin Mary, as in the detail at right from Raphael's Bridgewater Madonna. This shape is also a mystical statement of the union of heaven and earth, which is the very nature of a chapel.
However, the key to creating a design that someone can return to time and again is that it has genuine depth of meaning. In other words, it is rich with symbols that one can discover for oneself and interpret from one's own particular point of view or mood or need on any given day. Good design has intent and symbolism that "holds" the space, even if the viewer may not be fully conscious of it.
We also created a miniature "chapel within the Chapel" in an alcove of the room. This area houses both a kneeler and a stand holding beautiful Muslim prayer rugs. An adjustable beam of warm light shines softly down, almost like a shaft of sunlight making its way through branches.
I felt especially honored to be able to work with the hospital on creating this very special chapel. A space or sanctuary created with reverence, intention and great generosity of spirit is an enormous and wonderful offering. I also had the opportunity to work with some great people. I especially want to honor Steve Falk, head of Northwestern Memorial Foundation for stewarding this project with such hands-on, high-integrity leadership.
This is the kind of project I feel truly grateful to have been a part of. It is complex and beautiful architecturally and artistically, and in its achievement of client satisfaction and donor relations goals. The words that spring to mind when I think of it are holy, sacred, extraordinary and from the heart. My heartfelt thanks go to everyone involved! From donor to development team, admin leadership and facility folks, you are the best!
Photos courtesy Prentice Women's Hospital and Stephen Price