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.]
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.
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