A New Era for Rothko’s Sacred Space

The Rothko Chapel / Elizabeth Felicella

During this time, when people especially need places of solace and peace, the re-opening of our sanctuaries seem particularly important. After a comprehensive restoration and expansion, the Rothko Chapel, a non-denominational sacred space in Houston, Texas, has re-opened on a limited basis. Much of the revitalization effort, which encompasses the building and landscape, helps to more fully realize the vision of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko and the Chapel’s founders, John and Dominique de Menil.

The skylight in the original Chapel, which was designed by architect Gene Aubrey in 1971, has been reconceived, letting more light pour onto the 14 deep, dark, textured Rothko paintings. The landscape surrounding the building has been re-imagined to lead visitors on a more meaningful journey from the street to the artworks. And a new visitor center helps welcome and orient visitors.

The Rothko Chapel is a spiritual center open to those with “any background, any religion, any faith, or no faith,” explains Christopher Rothko, the son of Mark Rothko and chairman of the board of the organization that runs the Chapel.

In an introductory video, he explains how his father, who created some of the world’s most enduring artworks, had always wanted to create a space “where he could set the tone and have direct interaction” with the audience. When the Chapel’s founders, the de Menils, reached out to him, it was a “dream commission.”

Rothko the senior envisioned the 14 paintings and building together as one work of art. Architect Philip Johnson was first engaged to create the building, but Rothko and Johnson didn’t see eye to eye. Architect Howard Barnstone was then hired, but fell ill during the process. Gene Aubrey was the final architect to complete the work, which is in the form of an octagon, in reference to the spaces in a Greek orthodox cross. Rothko would never see its completion. After years of struggling with depression, he killed himself in February 1970, months before before the Chapel’s opening.

According to his son Christopher, Rothko spent his career searching for a “universal language” in art. Before the pandemic, the Chapel attracted some 80,000 visitors annually, some making pilgrimages from around the country and world. So in this sense, Rothko succeeded in achieving his goal with these enveloping, meditative panels, which are considered among his masterpieces.

The Rothko Chapel / Elizabeth Felicella

To realize the vision of Rothko and the Menils, the Rothko Chapel uses its 2-acre campus and powerful art to create interfaith understanding and champion human rights. Since 1971, the Chapel has hosted 5,000 programs on religion, meditation, and spiritual healing, and current global issues.

The renovation of the Chapel was overseen by Architecture Research Office along with lighting designers at George Sexton Associates. The skylight, lighting design, and entryway into the chapel were redesigned to heighten the visual impact of the paintings. With a new central skylight, daylight now permeates the interior, which is what Rothko originally intended.

The Rothko Chapel redesigned skylight / Elizabeth Felicella

Before, visitors would gather at the Chapel’s vestibule, crowding the experience. The new Suzanne Deal Booth Welcome House to the north of the Chapel helps relieve pressure on the Chapel, creating ample space for groups and guided tours to meet, and includes an expanded gift shop and bookstore.

New Welcome House at the Rothko Chapel / Elizabeth Felicella

The landscape has been clarified and improved by Nelson Byrd Woltz | Landscape Architects. The firm writes that the existing landscape is structured along a primary axis, which is defined by three elements: “the irregular octagonal brick Chapel, a reflecting pool, and Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk that is sited at the far end of the pool from the Chapel.” These elements represent art, spirituality, and justice, respectively — justice because Barnett Newman’s piece is dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman at The Rothko Chapel / Paul Hester

NBW bordered the reflecting pool’s western and southern edges with a new screen of 32 evergreen Savannah holly (Ilex x attenuata ‘Savannah’) hedges, which they say “refocuses attention on the central axis of the campus.”

Lanie McKinnon, ASLA, a landscape architect with the firm, goes into greater detail about their efforts in the public space surrounding the pool: “The plaza space was redesigned to create a larger and more contiguous space between the Chapel and Broken Obelisk. The new plaza space features exposed aggregate concrete reminiscent of the original concrete. The new Ilex hedge was installed, offset from the plaza, to open the edges of the gathering space and include new custom benches that, through their thick wood seats, echo the original benches within the Chapel.”

The landscape architects also reworked the “arrival sequence” that guides visitors from the street to the sacred heart of the campus — the 14 paintings. The path moves visitors through a series of “calm, quiet, shaded landscape rooms.”

Shady paths at the Rothko Chapel / Elizabeth Felicella

The firm explains: “these outdoor chambers provide visitors the time and space to physically and mentally prepare first for Broken Obelisk, then the Chapel, and finally Mark Rothko’s paintings. The sequence is calibrated to allow the eye to continually scale down while providing increasing shade in anticipation of the transition from the usually bright Texas sunlight to the Chapel’s interior. In reverse sequence, exiting the Chapel moves visitors through a range of spaces with tree-filtered views of the campus, allowing for quiet reflection in preparation for re-engaging with the city.”

A landscape room at the Rothko Chapel / Paul Hester

NBW planted some 300 river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’) trees in rows along the edges of the landscaped rooms to the west and south of the Chapel, which are used for yoga, the annual summer solstice labyrinth, and other musical events.

McKinnon told us: “the birches balance the larger gathering spaces with more intimate seating spaces. The idea was to create outdoor space for Chapel visitors to reflect before or after their journey.” All the new trees, along with a sub-grade detention system, help the campus better manage stormwater.

A landscape room at the Rothko Chapel / Elizabeth Felicella

The total revitalization plan includes some $30 million in projects. A planned second phase will include a new administration and archive building, a renovated and relocated guest house, a meditation garden, and a program center with outdoor plaza. The program center will become the new home for the events the Chapel organizes each year.

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