Hypothetical chapels

KU architecture students design models of sacred space

Kansas University already has an intimate worship space: Danforth Chapel.

But if the school should ever decide to build another one, say, on west campus, a dozen architectural models for such a chapel already exist.

They're the result of a five-week assignment given earlier this semester by Professor Bill Carswell to students in his second-year architectural design class.

Carswell, assistant dean of KU's School of Architecture, asked his students in early August to create small-scale models of a chapel that could hypothetically be built near Pioneer Cemetery, on land KU owns southwest of Bob Billings Parkway and Iowa streets.

His students, most of whom are earning their bachelor's in architectural engineering -- a five-year program -- were only given a few design guidelines to follow for the exercise.

Their proposed chapels should be only 800 square feet in size. The buildings should seat a maximum capacity of 45 people. And the design should take into consideration the often-extreme Kansas climate.


Scott McClurg/Journal-World Photo

Kansas University architecture students created models of a chapel that could hypothetically be built on the KU campus. This is a model by Brandon Strick.

Carswell also required the students to visit Danforth Chapel to see an existing design of a worship space on campus.

For most of them, the assignment was their first time creating and then crafting an architectural model out of wood.

But why a chapel?

Carswell ticked off a number of reasons for that choice of projects.

"It's a simplified building structure. There's a good example here on campus, Danforth Chapel. It involves a small number of space planning variables. It's a known type of building, and students can reference it from their own personal experiences," he said.

"And finally, there's a pedigree of good architectural examples of chapels. It's a favorite (type of) building for architects."

The 12 models that his students came up with will be displayed for public exhibition and review from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday at Ecumenical Christian Ministries, 1204 Oread Ave.

"I think we're going to put up 3-by-5 cards for people to write on. We (architects) work for clients, so it's always good to hear what people think about your work. You're practicing for life," Carswell said.

Exacting process

The students had their work cut out for them.

First, they visited Danforth Chapel, then did research on the Internet to learn about other types of chapel architecture.

They were seeking to develop a sense of the "typology" of chapels -- design signatures that are common to this type of structure, such as: a high, open ceiling; indirect (or ambient) lighting; and exposed structure, as in wooden beams or trusses.

Before they even sat down to craft their designs out of basswood (a bit heavier than balsa), students made several models of their designs by folding stiff paper, known as chipboard.

Then they had to build the real thing, an exacting process of using sharp knives, wood and glue to create everything from walls and roofs to miniature pews and altars.


Scott McClurg/Journal-World Photo

Model by Amanda Faires.

The results were meticulous and impressive.

The model fashioned by Diane Reynolds, 20, a sophomore from Lawson, Mo., features double rows of skylights along the peak of the roof. Inside, running along exposed ceiling trusses, is a "light shelf" design to diffuse light and create an ambient glow in the chapel.

It's an element that's used to great effect, in the real world, in the sanctuary of St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center, 1631 Crescent Road. Reynolds had admired that design feature while attending worship there with her boyfriend.

Her model also incorporates curved pews that arc forward, creating an intimate space in which worshippers are roughly the same distance from the front of the sanctuary.

"I wanted to make a small, comforting space -- something unique, but also traditional. The outside of my building is very plain, but the inside is much different. It's quite a surprise to walk into my chapel," Reynolds said.

Precision, detail


Scott McClurg/Journal-World Photo

Model by Eric Snow.

Many of the students began with ambitious plans, only to learn how difficult it really is to design and then build a wooden model.

"I think everybody started out trying to be creative -- Frank Gehry-type architecture. Then they had to back off a little bit. The majority of architects don't do that type (of design)," said Matt Say, 30, a sophomore from Kansas City, Kan.

Frank Gehry is a celebrated American architect known for his avant-garde design projects.

This was the first wooden model Say had ever built.

"I like it. I'm more pleased with the actual construction of the model than with the design," he said.

Nicholas McBride, a fifth-year senior from St. Louis, worked painstakingly to build his model. One day, he spent 20 straight hours on the project.

His chapel is a wonder of precision and detail, with great thought given to a design meant to create indirect or filtered light.

"It was a great assignment," McBride said. "I learned that 800 square feet isn't all that much, and it's very hard to work with. You can just throw it together, but architecturally, it's not going to work."


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