We seldom even notice the buildings around us, never mind find inspiration in them. Building W15 is an exception. It’s more than a building, it’s architectural genius. When I first visited it in 1994, it had a profound effect on me as it solidified my slowly forming desire to be an architect.
Profound architectural effect
All great pieces of architecture have broad appeal, so the ways this building inspired me will be found in other great buildings that you might experience. It’s a building of mystery, of contrasts, of simplicity, and when I first stood inside I was literally speechless. It’s effect is that powerful. There is so much to say about this building’s history, context, structure, scale, order, location and how each of these contributes to it’s greatness. Perhaps most importantly Building W15 appealed to my INTELLECT, my EMOTIONS and my SUBCONSCIOUS to affect me profoundly
The Kresge Chapel is located on the campus of MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, famous for it’s excellence in science and engineering. It is simply labelled “Building W15” on campus maps. It was completed in 1955 by a Finnish American architect, Eero Saarinen. It’s a non-denominational chapel, seating about 130 people
Appeals to the intellect
This building appealed to my INTELLECT for several reasons. It has purity of form, simplicity. Its a windowless brick cylinder about 50 feet in diameter, and it’s roundness is symbolic of unity, wholeness, infinity, perfection. Approaching the building, you see it is surrounded by a moat, a shallow channel filled with water. The effect is to separate it from it’s surroundings. It’s a “holy” place, “set apart”. I’ll come back to the moat again shortly.
Simplicity of function
The function of this building is simple: it’s a chapel. It’s a place to contemplate the divine, for introspection, for prayer. You enter perpendicular to the main axis into a low, rectangular volume, in contrast to the main round form. The entry hall is dissimilar in materials, geometry and scale. It’s a mosaic of light and colour. It’s a compressive space with a low ceiling, it wants to squeeze you out. You’re compelled to turn towards the doors. The geometry of the building directs your path inwards into the main space
Appeals to emotion
Not only did Building W15 appeal to my intellect, but also to my EMOTIONS. It lends a sense of deep peace, security, refuge. The main chapel doors are solid, weighty. You enter into a dim, quiet space, and your eyes need a few moments to adjust. The primary material inside is brick, but not a smooth, perfect brick, it’s irregular, lumpy, textured, expressive of humanity’s own imperfections. There is wood, not in a contrasting colour, but harmonious to match the brick. Same with the floor surface. You also notice there are no grilles for air flow, but it comes through holes in the bricks, totally integrated in the walls, not distracting or abrupt. All these elements work together to focus your eyes on the altar, the focal point of the space. It’s a pure white marble altar, bathed in light from above, from an “oculus”, a round skylight. It’s a mystical place with a quiet, calming effect.
Peace and exuberance
In contrast to the peace this building gives, there is also a sense of exuberance. The metal sculpture scatters the light. It changes from every angle. The interior brick surface undulates. Its a suitable expression of the divine. The object of our faith is not rectangular, but fluid. You soon notice, in contrast to the strong light above the altar, there is a shimmering, flickering light bathing the walls from below. This is genius. Remember the water we saw in the moat? Light is reflected off the water, upwards, onto the inside walls. It’s animated, ever changing. The architect was inspired during a trip to Sparta, Greece, on a hillside at night, with a full moon above and low, lingering light on the horizon.
Appeals to subconscious
Building W15 also appealed to my SUBCONSCIOUS. The way materials, geometry and light combine to create a work of power and mystery, together they reinforce the building’s purpose as a place of introspection, of contemplation. There’s a “rightness” about it that’s difficult to explain, but when a building can literally leave you speechless, you know it’s a work of genius. That it connected with something deep inside you. After only a few moments of introspection in this powerful space I was inspired to become a better architect.
Inspiration, not just for architects
That’s the power of a brilliant work of architecture, one that appeals to your intellect, emotions and subconscious. While not everyone aspires to be an architect, everyone can be inspired by these important places. When you happen to discover a special place like this you’ll know it on many levels, and just maybe your life will be changed because of it.
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