News
10.05.2010
Sacred Space Reaches to the Light, and Beyond
Hanrahan Meyers Architects composes a New York chapel with physics and the human spirit in mind
The sanctuary with oak benches.
Michael Moran

Christian Science Reading Rooms are usually closed to the outside world. Five years ago, however, New York’s Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist began a major renovation of its Greenwich Village home to transform the previously concealed space into a light-filled Infinity Chapel. The church engaged Victoria Meyers and Thomas Hanrahan of Hanrahan Meyers Architects (hMa) to design the new sanctuary, including a reading room and below-grade Sunday school. Both church members and architects were interested in a serious exploration of the properties of light in space.

  Layering brings luminous light into the Infinity Chapel.
Layering brings luminous light into the Chapel.
 

 The commission came to the office, Meyers recalled, after the client encountered a book she was writing, Designing with Light, and sought her advice on creating a new model for their sanctuary. She was flattered but surprised, as the book had not yet been printed. (It was published by Abbeville Press in 2006.)

The design process resulted in a remarkably layered sequence of spaces. “We crafted a curvilinear interpretation of a cube that was ‘opening’ through the action of light,” Meyers explained. “Surfaces peel back to reveal other spaces beyond the cube.” In fact, the interlocking experiences of space, light, and form guided the entire design from the beginning. “In this sense, we really saw the chapel as a contemporary interpretation of a four-dimensional figure—a hypercube.” The challenge was to dissolve and layer not only the experience of light and space, but also the visitor’s sense of time.

To that end, the Infinity Chapel’s walls are imagined as disembodied white planes shaping natural light and defining the larger geometries. The interplay of curving planes implies “the shape of a ‘Klein bottle’ or Möbius strip, simple figures that suggest infinity by having no beginning and no end,” Meyers said. The interior is designed as a procession from the street to a reclaimed back garden, with clear views through glass partitions into a 3,000-square-foot reading room and a 4,000-square-foot, double-height sanctuary.

The reading room promotes continuous light flow with "light tubes."
The reading room with "light tubes."

Against these evanescent curves, solid materials ground the design and become physical focal points—books in the reading room, oak benches in the sanctuary, and old-growth Ash planks atop the pulpit and librarian’s desk. A series of “light tubes” puncture a polished concrete floor to connect the reading area and Sunday school spaces and transform what could have been a dark basement into a luminous classroom.

Meyers appreciates the church committee’s interest in the “scientific” aspects of light that inform the design, an approach that parallels the spiritual practices of the congregation. This concern for the physics of light and its interplay on curving interior planes allowed Meyers to pursue “that spirit of creating a space that was not simply pretty to look at, but embedded with a cerebral idea about space, light, and form.”

Branden Klayko