University of Arkansas, Fayetteville


The Benedictine Abbey is a product of medieval thought and society; for centuries its architecture signified the cosmology and spirituality not only of the order but also of a widely accepted Christian worldview. Through the design of a Meditation Chapel for the Benedictine Abbey of Subiaco at Paris, Arkansas, this project explored the cultural meaning and technical execution of contemporary sacred architecture. Nearly a millennium ago, the skin and bones of Gothic structure and stained glass represented a sacred ideal. In the contemporary context, however, this research probed the possibilities of using systems (interior and exterior), particularly the design of the elevation and cladding of the chapel wall, to create a sacred space that could communicate spirituality through phenomenal and sensate qualities of site and materials in lieu of ancient symbol and sign. The chapel represents the process of architectural design as a research inquiry through a series of interrelated investigations of site as a product of nature and time, of architectural expression as a poetic assemblage, of building skin and structure as biomorphic systems, and of building materials as conveyors of phenomenal qualities of space. These include ( 1,) generation of the cladding and structural systems through conceptual analog and analysis of an exemplary biological system, the beetle, through drawing exercises; (2,) directed study of Subiaco Abbey through phenomenological investigation documented in drawings; and (3,) comprehensive design of the chapel, including the integration of building systems. This comprehensive design in itself represents the cumulative discoveries of the research; together with the speculative process drawings through which the final design evolved, these design documents constitute the research program. On a fundamental level this comprehensive project, executed as a capstone experience in the design studios that are integral to the professional program in architecture, demonstrated the mutually reinforcing relationship of technical knowledge, design facility, critical inquiry. and creative insight required of the architectural designer. More particularly, through the exploration of spirituality and sacred space, the research focuses attention on those formal and sensual characteristics of architecture from which it derives its popular meaning.