Multifaith Center and Houghton Memorial Chapel

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Multifaith Center and Houghton Memorial Chapel
This modest project is a renovation in the fullest and most metaphorical sense of the term. It brings full circle the transformation of spiritual life at this women’s college from its Protestant origins, to a full fledged community of multiple faiths. If Houghton Memorial Chapel, completed at the end of the 19th century, gave architectural form and symbolic substance to an originating majority, then the unearthing of a new Multifaith Center in the crypt beneath the historic chapel gives symbolic presence and new form to the multiplicity of 21st century faith. Given these circumstances, there is even greater significance that the Multifaith Center is not a separate new structure. Instead, it seeks and sustains its meaning through a spiritual dialogue between old and new, between past and present. It recognizes that multifaith worship is not a denomination, but an enriching layer placed upon an individual’s faith. In architectural terms, this understanding of multifaith gives rise to the entire substance of this renovation. At each turn it generates a rich and enduring architectural dialogue between new modes of worship and old, and between new architecture and prior histories. The narthex is at once restored and enriched by an artfully inserted new elevator and stair, giving access to both the historic chapel above and the new Multifaith Center below. The historic chapel has been restored with a new floor, accessible ramp to the altar, new heating, lighting and fire protection, and restored stained glass. Poised below the restored chapel is a newly transformed underworld that gives form to the dialogue between faiths. As one descends to the former crypt the expectation is darkness. Instead, the new Multifaith Hall, a jewel box illuminated by backlit linen encased resin panels, emerges at the core within the heavy stone and brick masonry. Whereas the chapel above is an expansive volume with rich wood and brick finishes amid the occasional illumination of stained glass windows, all below is solid and confined, yet confounding in its contrast between the renovated brick and masonry perimeter and the lightness of the resin encased worship room. As one cannot have multifaith without faith, three faith-specific rooms for prayer, meditation and study are arrayed along three sides of the central worship room. They express in architectural form the guiding principles of multifaith worship at Wellesley College; respect for the separation and differences between faiths, and the principle of equality irrespective of the number of followers within the community. These rooms have been hollowed out within the cleaned and newly pointed masonry of the chapel basement. Beneath the apse to the south side of the chapel, a Fellowship Room to share food and informal conversation emerges with ample light and view. The Fellowship Room can also be entered on grade from the rear of the chapel, where a black concrete reflecting pool greets worshipers, acknowledging the life-giving presence and role of water in many faiths. With a minimum of means, this project renews not only a historic building but a spiritual tradition. Architecture and faith are intertwined and inseparable, each enriching and giving meaning to the other by their simultaneous presence in this revered structure. The architecture is formed and rendered legible by the seminal principles for multifaith worship articulated at Wellesley College, and multifaith worship is in turn interpreted through the dialogue between past and present form.


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