28 August 2009

Liepaja Latvia Chapel

Liepaja is a beautiful coastal city off the Baltic Sea in Latvia. Starting in 2003, the LDS Church looked at the possibility of building a new meetinghouse downtown for the large branch created after proselyting began here in 1992. The site purchased was along an existing transit line across the road from city administration and in the vicinity of three historical churches. Newly completed this month, the Liepaja Chapel is now the largest LDS chapel in Latvia at just over 600 square meters (6500 square feet.)

The traditional standard plan design presented to the city was not approved. The Church News reported that "propaganda turned much public sentiment against the Church" (Church News, Faith Renewed, 12 Jan 2008) as a reason for failure. This may have been the case, however the local media reported, "[T]he Liepāja Local Building Board objections were not against the house of worship as such, but against the originally planned construction as inconsistent with the nature of the urban heritage values." (Latvijas Avize, 'Top lielākais mormoņu dievnams', 04 Feb 2009) As proof that this was the main concern, rather than religious bigotry, when the Church resubmitted a new modern design proposal with appropriate features fitting in with the city guidelines and requests, it was approved. [Since I don't know anyone who speaks Latvian, I had to rely on a computer translation for the above quote.]

Site Plan

Exterior Elevation

Similar processes of rejected building plans and delays in building permits happen regularly, including in the US. When this happens in LDS circles, it is often attributed to anti-Mormon sentiment, but is often simply a community that cares about what is built there and the desire for something appropriate and integral to the site context in which it is placed. This is also frequently the case in downtown and historic districts, of which the Liepaja Chapel belongs to both. Fortunately in this case, there is now a beautiful chapel that fits into the context of the site, the historic character of the neighborhood, and the culture of the city and country into which it is located. Finally the branch has a building to "replace their second-story rented room." (Church News, Faith Renewed, 12 Jan 2008)

Rendering of building placed in existing street context

Photo of building under construction

The diagram of the plan is formed by two rectangular pieces coming together to form the ‘L shape’ of the building. The intersection of these pieces forms the lobby. The act of coming together crushes one leg of the rectangle, angling the wall and forming the lobby as an extension of the corridor. This angled wall becomes the most important gesture in the plan.

The building is placed on the site with an urban context in mind, maintaining the street wall by placing the building along the street edge with parking hidden behind. Suburban settings typically do the opposite; no street wall because of large building setbacks and parking located in front of the building.

Preliminary Floor Plan

Final Floor Plan

The preliminary floor plan shown is an older version of the plan with the font and restrooms located at the rear of the building. In the final floor plan, the font and restrooms have been wisely moved to the front, adjacent to the street entry. This arrangement better supports a symbolic narrative of progress through the building. First, as a wanderer off the street, you are drawn to the building as a means of ascension to God by entering under the steeple. The first step is one of cleansing through the ritual of baptism where you change from street clothes to white clothing and are washed pure. You are welcomed into the Church in the chapel where you meet those in the congregation, sing hymns to God, and partake of weekly sacraments. Continuing through the building are the classrooms where weekly instruction is given. Finally at the back of the building is the large activity room where you can socialize with others and form close friendships.

Additionally, these uses are also in order of priority as you move through the building, with baptism being the most important function in the meetinghouse, followed by the sacrament, instructional teaching, and finally social activities. In a way, this is the opposite of the temple, which increases in priority as you move through the building.

Building Foyer

Chapel interior

The Chapel is heavily influenced by a traditional US design that doesn't speak the language of the rest of the building. Unfortunately this is the weakest part of the building. However, it is still a stronger design than current US chapels. For example, the entire length of the chapel on both sides is lined with a series of tall vertical windows. Not only do the windows provide natural light, but also a more open, inviting, and welcoming space, linking the Chapel with the exterior. The one set of windows open up directly to the public street, linking the Chapel with the community. Further, the windows are glazed with clear glass, not the translucent frosted glass commonly used in the US. Also, the blinds are open, which really should be the rule in all our buildings, not the exception. There is nothing for this building to hide; it wants to be open, visible, and a part of this community.

Font adjacent to street entry

The font is located right off of the street entry. The door to the room is actually a large opening with a floor to ceiling transparent glass slider to close off the space if needed. This beautiful detail sends the message that even when the slider is closed, the font is always there; visually open and accessible to all; a constant reminder of the importance of baptism in the Church. Similar sliders in front of the font with a metal trim piece across the ceiling line provide a beautiful threshold into the space of ritual cleansing. Finally the distinctive circular window highlights the room with a connection to the front elevation. A room such as this would demand reverence and respect at all times because of the visual presence of the font. A place that would be appropriate for ponder or study. Overall this solution, along with the Leura Chapel font, provides successful solutions to how the importance of baptism can be conveyed through our buildings and the font placement and prominence. Both are more successful in this than current US and International standard plan designs.

Side of building and driveway with rock landscaping

Back of building showing parking

Other Items of Note:
- The steeple tower marks the street entry, as though the building were saying, “Enter here to ascend to God.” The ‘building as a steeple’ helps convey the image in which the building will help assist in that ascension.
- There is no material transition to the steeple. The building itself angles up to become the steeple.
-There are clean transitions from roof to wall, i.e. no roof overhang, which helps to emphasize the form and shape of the building. Unnecessary details such as an overhang are removed since there is no purpose for them.
-The exterior is detailed with clean lines and openings as a result of not using any unnecessary brick coursing or corner details
-The brown, older-looking brick fits in with the character of the old town
-Tall, vertical repeating windows occur in well-proportioned groupings
-There are benches around the building
-Rocks, not grass, are used in the landscaping
-Interior spot lights are used on the lobby artwork
-Modern furniture is used in the lobby which speaks the same language as the building
-No sisal wall coverings, carpet on floors, crown moldings, or chair rails are used (except in the chapel), which also speaks to the language of the building
-Lots of interior natural light present
-At all entries, the exterior massing is recessed which provides a shadow line and gives prominence. No unnecessary false gables are added to indicate entry, as is common in the US.
-Parking is done with pavers, not asphalt

Design Architect: AKA Birojs (led by Andris Kokins)
Address: 31 K. Valdemara st. Liepaja, Latvia


Michael Carpenter said...

So, I guess we need to elect some anti-Mormons to our US city councils and planning commissions so we can get nice looking buildings built in the U.S.? :)

Silus Grok said...

Good heavens, that chapel is hideous. Looks like a prison chapel.

* shudders *

green mormon architect said...

You may be on to something Michael. :)

What specifically do you find hideous about the building, Silus?

claire said...

Couple questions: are the chairs in the chapel fixed or movable? If not fixed, why not?

The font room- does it serve another purpose (classroom, high council room, etc?

Thanks for sharing!

Silus Grok said...

I have a visceral reaction to "modern" styling. It's a purely subjective response … so I'll stick to more objective concerns.

1: Unless there's a correctional facility nearby, I can't imagine how the building's curb view "reflects the neighborhood". Immediately before the building (in the photo), you see a warn wood-sided building with shadow lines and multi-light windows. Immediately after the chapel appears to be a brick warehouse — again with a multitude of meaningful shadow lines and multi-light windows. Our chapel echos none of these characteristics. What DOES our chapel echo? It sits flush to the sidewalk (good); it's about the same height (shouldn't a chapel stand a little proud of the buildings in the area?); and our steeple looks a lot like the TV antennas on the wood building (bad).

2) There's nothing particularly welcoming — and plenty which is outright foreboding about the building: the entrance is dark and is tucked under the steeple like a cowering child; the street-side windows look like they were bought on-sale at a industrial supply center; and the brickwork is monolithic. As a whole, it looks like a water treatment facility with a cell phone tower slapped on it.

3) Buildings that house people — homes, schools, churches, and the like — should cue people to their nurturing and humanist purposes. Greenery, ornamentation, shadow lines, craftsmanship, windows that open, entrances that welcome, lighting that softens the night, and the like all reinforce to the human soul that the building was built FOR people, not despite them.

For all intents, this building looks extruded. It doesn't reflect its surroundings, gives no hint to the beauty of the gospel (the half-assed steeple doesn't count), and in no way shows the passerby or congregant that people are welcomed and valued.

All of these things are possible, even within the confines of "modern" aesthetics. And none of these things are present in the building's exterior — and even more strikingly absent on the building's street face. To borrow a tired phrase from real estate: this building lack curb appeal.

So … I've trashed on the building, what (if anything) do I like about it?

1) It's there. And that's important … the church is growing and building chapels in diverse places to serve its members.

2) The quality of the materials and construction are rather apparent. The brick is new and well made and the lines are straight. Don't confuse this, though, with the requirements of craftsmanship. Even extruded buildings can be well-extruded.

3) It appears the Church upgraded the sidewalk and gutter — and you can tell they took a little more care with their railing (what's that for?) than the folks on the corner did with theirs.

4) The interior is bright and warm and the modernist touches don't overshadow the humanist vernacular. I especially like the font.

I could go on … but I think I answered the question, no?


Silus Grok said...

5) I love the cobblestone parking area. Permeable, with a high albedo, and it's location-aware.

green mormon architect said...

Claire – the chapel has movable seats and I’m not sure why. Typically with smaller meetinghouses the seats are movable, but there is also no fixed rostrum, allowing for a multi-purpose room for activities. This has a fixed rostrum. So if it is a dedicated chapel space like this with fixed rostrum, I don’t know why you’d want to remove the chairs and have a dance or some other type of activity in there.

As for the font, the room is not listed as a teaching area (TA) on the floor plan, but I’m sure if there were the need, it would be used as a classroom.

green mormon architect said...

I greatly appreciate your comments. You bring up some important questions that deal with the principles of modernity. What makes a church a church? How should we build a church today? Is a cross or steeple the only way to know if a building is religious in nature? If you remove the steeple from our standard plan design or this building, would they look like a church? Does a steeple or religious building have to look like a New England chapel in order to be considered a beautiful religious building? I think questions like these are what modern designers are exploring – what makes a building a religious building?

You assume that a correctional facility or water treatment facility are by their very nature “ugly”. My belief is that beauty can be found in all types of programs and functionality. Personally I love the idea of an industrial designed church. But I would actually argue that the current LDS standard plan is much closer to a warehouse type of facility than this chapel. And that doesn’t have to be a negative thing. But it is because it doesn’t embrace its “warehouseness.” It is a monolithic structure with eight feet of wall and twenty-four feet of uninhabited roof above. But in the finishes and by adding a steeple it tries very hard not to look like a warehouse.

I gave this building a good review mostly in comparison with the other LDS meetinghouses out there. The reality is that criticism for the standard plan buildings would be a very long list. What I like about this building is its attempts to have an honest aesthetic, a religious narrative, and how it fits into an urban setting. Is it a perfect building? No. But it is much closer to an aesthetic of place than our standard plans are. Being in context with something doesn’t mean it has to match or be in the same style or design. Unfortunately I haven’t been to the site, so it’s hard to speak on this, but from what I have seen, the building fits the context quite nicely.

I see as much shadow lines and craftsmanship in this chapel as in the building next to it. I don’t believe that mullions or ornament give a window or a building their soul. The difference is the designer chose to build with the technology and knowledge that we have gained in the last century that the builders of the older building didn’t have. Machined finishes provide a human touch since all industrial processes and finishes are envisioned by people. Rather than dealing with human craftsmanship, modern artists create the tool that builds their art, rather than building the art themselves. Both have the human touch in their making and I think that beauty can be found in both approaches. There doesn't need to be a dividing line between ‘craftsmanship in habitable spaces’ and ‘machined finishes in factories.’ We mix the two all the time in our habitable buildings, most of the time unintentionally.

We build warehouses and then hide the buildings' true identity with a façade of false ornament and pretended finishes to look like a church from an older time. At best it is unintended dishonesty, at worst it is a flat out lie.

Pilland said...

Your report is very interesting indeed.
I invite You to see a great collection of views of borders (riigipiirid) in my Italian-Estonian site http://www.pillandia.blogspot.com
Helping text in Your language too
Best wishes from Italy!

Reuben said...

Great post. I agree that this chapel is WAY better than the standard design. It's a little arrogant of us to try and stamp out the same chapel design everywhere - in all countries & neighborhoods....

but I also agree with Silus Grok. I'm not exactly a fan of the chapel, either. I don't have the architectural language to express why other than I like "traditional" architecture and this seems very "modern" (don't ask me to define either of those...). So it doesn't speak to me, but it's better than our standard design...

Thanks for the report. I'd love to see more reports about non-standard chapel designs!

BHodges said...

Have you seen this drawing yet? It is of a projected temple in AZ:


Silus Grok said...

Wow. There sure is a lot of lawn for a temple in the middle of Hades' own gravel pit.

green mormon architect said...

Thanks Reuben - I'll continue to post more chapels as I learn about them. There are more than I realized. I'm hoping to visit the two "high-rise" chapels recently built in New York when I'm there this week.

green mormon architect said...

I haven't seen that image yet - thanks for linking to it Blair. I am surprised they released it, since it appears to just be a massing model with no detail. (I would be shocked if they actually built a minimalist temple design like that.) My guess is they will probably add the very popular prairie-stylized vertical repeating windows like they did at Draper, Mesa, Oquirrh, Rexburg, etc.

The architect appears to be Architekton, who also did the ASU Institute a few years ago. That is one of my favorite lds buildings. Interestingly I just learned about the Institute yesterday, so I was glad to see the same architect on this temple. I plan to do a post on the Institute shortly.

green mormon architect said...

"Hades' own gravel pit" - I love it! Pretty shocking to see all that grass. Not just the temple either, but the whole neighborhood (that doesn't even exist yet). Looks like it could be outside of London, not outside of Phoenix. They are trying very hard to make this temple not look like it's in the middle of the desert.

At least the meetinghouses have recently taken a more appropriate approach to eco-regionalizing the landscaping which typically means way less grass than before, especially in the western US. Not sure why temples haven't gotten on board with that. I guess 'the desert blossoming as the rose' means kentucky blue grass everywhere...?

Silus Grok said...

Hehe. I try. :)

You know: the church has tried very hard to minimize costs by having a handful of standardized plans for its chapels — and even, to a lesser degree, its temples. You'd think, though, that the goodwill we'd garner by having 20 standard chapels that fit a larger array of locales would be worth the nominal cost. And, you'd think, they'd perhaps design these chapels to utilize local artisans (what a wonderful proselyting tool!) in conjunction with sustainable, modular design.

Silus Grok said...

Hehe. I try. :)

You know: the church has tried very hard to minimize costs by having a handful of standardized plans for its chapels — and even, to a lesser degree, its temples. You'd think, though, that the goodwill we'd garner by having 20 standard chapels that fit a larger array of locales would be worth the nominal cost. And, you'd think, they'd perhaps design these chapels to utilize local artisans (what a wonderful proselyting tool!) in conjunction with sustainable, modular design.

Silus Grok said...

It seems, instead, that what we have is a chapel design that's optimized for suburban Utah.

Imagine if every chapel had a carved wall behind the podium and places inside where stained glass was used — where artisans could leave a lasting mark. We do this in a much grander scale in our temples. Why not customize the practice for chapels?

green mormon architect said...

I agree with you completely Silus - in so many cases we are exporting suburban Utah to the world. Great idea about the chapel wall - that would help increase the sacredness of the chapel and add uniqueness, beauty, and identity to each building. People may actually start to take ownership of their buildings again.

Silus Grok said...

Thank you!

A great new post might be to discuss how/why we have cookie cutter chapels, and brainstorming ways to fix the problems with the current approach.

Just saying.

Anonymous said...

Hey architect, can you drop me an email?

(remove the obvious spamfoolers)

Doug said...

I really like both this chapel and the Leura chapel that you posted last month.
I would like to see much more of this type of creativity in our designs, because the buildings can be missionary tools in their own right. This chapel shows that the church has certain concepts that are at the very core,as demonstrated by having the font in such a prominent place, and that the church is local, and not just an American import.
As for the movable chairs, I have visited a number of chapels in Europe and saw that many of them had these types of chairs. Some where like that because the chapel was actually a multi puprpose room, where the permanent stand area could be closed off from the rest of the room (by an accordian door), so that dinners, dances, etc could be held there, and also sometimes the chairs are that style simply because that is the style of seating in many newer non LDS buildings.
This is a great blog, please keep up the good work! And keep looking for such cool chapels!

Stephen said...

It is pretty, though one comforting thing is being able to visually identify LDS chapels when traveling or moving.

john f. said...

GMA, I'm coming to this late but wanted to say that it's a great post and I love the Latvian chapel. They have done an excellent job with the features you have mentioned, and particularly with the street side presence, which to me appears to be the chapel windows. That is much more appropriate for our chapels.

You mentioned that you are constantly looking for chapels. We have a unique one here in the Ilford Ward, Romford Stake in London's outer boroughs. It's one of the urban designs with three stories. The chapel faces a main thorougfare in this busy section of East London and the parking lot is in the back, hidden from view. It is also at a lower level. This means that for those who drive to church, the entrance is on the ground floor and you have to go up the steps to the first floor to get to the chapel whereas if you walk in off the street, you can proceed directly to the chapel, past the baptismal font and bathrooms on your left (a large enry/lobby space) and the kitchen and an activity room on your right. Upstairs on the second floor (which is the third floor from the perspective of the parking lot behind the building) are the primary rooms, nursery, various classrooms, one bishop's office and a clerk's office (and a bathroom and the library). Downstairs from the street-facing walk in entry level (the floor with the chapel) is the ground floor for the parking lot and you have four classrooms, the relief society room (i.e. very large commons room used as the relief society room on Sunday; the largest of the four classrooms on the ground floor is used for priesthood opening exercises and then the different quorums break out into the other classrooms), and another bishop's office and clerk's office.

I think you would be interested in looking at it/analyzing it from your point of view -- I doubt, however, that it has anything to offer in terms of being particularly eco-friendly, unfortunately. But in terms of fitting in with its environment, they've done an excellent job and it's a pleasure to see its white spire rising on this main thoroughfare. (It was built about four, possibly five, years ago.)

BYU Rugby Forever said...

I have just recently read or perused a number of your posts, and I must say that there are a number of great and interesting points presented.

I am a senior in the Construction Management program at BYU and am also finishing a class focused on sustainability. The thoughts and ideas that result from pondering on this broad topic are quite astounding, generally speaking and with specific application in the Church.

On occasion, we have an architect, project manager, or other professional that deals with LDS church/temple design and construction come to speak to us. Simply put, I believe it important to remember that the Church is a divine institution operated by human individuals. Thus, good or great ideas may not come to the forefront for a while if ever.

More specifically, one of the Church-employed architects spoke to us about current efforts to improve the aesthetic of church buildings with their site and context around the globe. So, as perhaps insufficient in scope as it may seem to some of us, the Church is nevertheless attempting to better address that issue.

And along these same lines, I believe that sustainability will slowly become a more critical issue to the LDS Church. Just how and when that happens remains to be seen...

Doug said...

I just happened upon your blog for the first time. At first glance of the Latvia chapel, I thought it was the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen on 2nd south in SLC. It has a stunningly simple chapel on the corner designed by David Brems and stained glass windows designed and installed by me. The similarity of the two buildings is striking. Any idea who designed the chapel in Latvia? I think both structures are very handsome.

Daniel H said...

I loved the European chapels of my mission. Some of them were very American in their feel, but some were delightfully unique.

John Blum said...

This chapel is located in my hometown and I have bean in ti many times (thou I reside now in different city and attend different branch). I have seen different comments here about certain features and things people don't understand why such a solution.
Here are some of my observations:
1) The rails. They are there because of city train, as a security feature, since it is public building. I guess that that could be some law to have rails there.
2) This type of brick (decorative brick, since building it self is built out of light concrete blocks) probably were chosen due to other public buildings nearby, like 4 school buildings in neighborhood are built from red brick, nearby Catholic and Baptist buildings are built from red brick. So this solution and city building committee decision seems to be reasonable.
3) The height. As far as I know the initial plan was to build bigger and taller building, but due to restrictions in that area of city they were changed and new design was created.
4) In real life it looks more welcoming than in pictures.
5) Chairs in the chapel are movable. This building don't have dedicated events hall, so chapel has multiple uses.

There is being built a new chapel in Riga. If you are interested in where and what it looks like now, let me know. I will e-mail you picture.