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Out of this world.

Byzantine frescoes pillaged from a church in Cyprus have found a glorious new resting place in a modern chapel that uses panels of translucent glass to evoke a thrilling sense of the numinous.

The Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston, Texas, was built to display dome and apse fresco paintings originally housed in a small thirteenth-century votive chapel near the Cypriot town of Lysi. During the late 1970s, the frescoes - serene representations of Christ and the Virgin Mary - were stolen from the chapel, cut into 38 pieces and shipped to Germany. On the verge of being sold off piecemeal, the fragments were acquired by the Houston-based Menil Foundation and duly returned to the Church of Cyprus. The frescoes are now in the custody of the Foundation on extended loan.

Under the terms of the loan agreement, a consecrated chapel was built to house and display the restored masterpieces. The Menil Foundation selected a site in the leafy Melrose district of Houston, near the original Menil Collection museum (AR March 1987) and the more recent Cy Twombly Gallery (both by Renzo Piano). Francois de Menil, son of the distinguished arts patron Dominique de Menil, was commissioned to design the new chapel-cure-museum.

It was judged contextually inappropriate simply to replicate the chapel at Lysi in a modern American city, so de Menil has created a mediating external building with an embedded steel structure - a 'reliquary box' - which forms a neutral enclosure for a freestanding chapel constructed from thin translucent slabs of laminated glass. From the outside, however, there is little to suggest the spatial and spiritual drama within. Clad in finely jointed precast concrete panels, the modest, orthogonal structure has a clear affinity with the inscrutable elementality of Plano's Cy Twombly Gallery. A limestone rubble wall wraps around the new building, evoking the rough-hewn construction of the original chapel in Cyprus. Entry is marked by a stark, lead-clad portico.

The building unfolds through a calm sequence of spaces, intended to prepare you for an encounter with the divine. Visitors enter a long lobby, glazed at the north-east end where it overlooks a tranquil garden enclosed by the limestone wall. Set at a right angle to the lobby is an antechamber, its bare concrete walls dimly illuminated by a clerestory. This tall, narrow space provides a moment of stillness and decompression before entering the chapel proper.

Inside the chapel, the sense of layering and dematerialization becomes more apparent. Set 600mm back from the external concrete walls is an inner, secondary envelope of black steel plates. The lowest quarter of the black wall is removed, allowing light to gently wash down the concrete and infuse the chapel with a subtle radiance. The charcoal-grey slate floor heightens the sense of depthlessness. Out of the womb-like darkness, the panels of jade green glass supporting the frescoes glow with a stunning intensity. Traditionally, Byzantine churches were lavishly adorned with murals, but here there is only a handful of images, rendered even more striking by their splendid isolation in de Menil's translucent glass chapel. The new interior even recreates the curvature of the original dome and apse settings.

The scale and geometry of the panels exceeded the fabrication limits Of tempered glass, so 38mm thick laminated glass was used instead. Panels are supported by a free-standing structure constructed from tungsten-welded steel tubes of varying diameters. Engineered by Ore Arup & Partners, this structural trapeze disappears against the dark background, making the glass chapel appear mysteriously weightless and free-standing. In reality, the rigidity of the steel space-frame structure is increased by the laminated glass panels, which act as shear diaphragms to prevent the frame from racking and deforming. The resulting composite system of steel frame and glass panels is remarkably robust.

Constantly changing as visitors move through it, the translucent structure and its precious contents are transformed into an exquisitely ethereal apparition. As channels and instruments of light, the glass panels evoke the numinous, instilling the ancient frescoes with renewed spiritual significance and power,


Francois de Menil, New York

Project team

Francois de Menil, Matthew Pickner, John Blackmor, Jan Greben

Structural engineer

Ove Arup & Partners


Paul Warchol
COPYRIGHT 1998 EMAP Architecture
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Glass and Transparency; Chapel Museum, Houston, Texas
Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:May 1, 1998
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