The Living Chapel holds the sacrality of life at its core.
The Living Chapel in an architectural interpretation of the message of “Laudato Si!”. Taking inspiration directly from Saint Francis’s life and teachings, the Living Chapel has been directly shaped in its form, decoration, and choice of materials in a way that we hope reimagines these well-known teachings and introduces them to new generations.
In form, the dimensions of the Living Chapel are directly proportional to St. Francis’s Porziuncola, the chapel he himself restored. However, rather than being a static structure with an inside and outside, the shape spins outwards and upwards, lifting to the heavens. As the walls of the chapel separate, they create new ways of interacting with the architecture. Rather than entering through a single doorway, pilgrims are welcomed on a journey. They travel down through the arms of the Living Chapel to where a cross-shaped entrance ushers them into the inner sanctum. This journey pays homage to St. Francis’s own life, where, at the foot of the San Damiano cross, he found his calling with God. Like this famous cross, our entrance is a ‘rood’ cross, standing guard at the entrance to the spiritual space.
After finding his vocation, St. Francis dedicated himself tirelessly to rebuilding the physical Church in the literal sense. The calling of “Laudato Si!” is much the same. God is calling us to caretake and rebuild the world around us. To symbolize this message, the structure of the Living Chapel has been constructed entirely out of recyclable and repurposed materials that are being reclaimed by Nature. Surrounding the chapel are 40 repurposed 55-gallon steel “oil drums” which transform into planters, seating, and merge into the shape of the walls. Then, on the front Chime Wall of the Living Chapel, the metal screens are all made from manufacturing steel scrap material that has not been altered in any way, and imbedded in this wall are 36 steelpan drums which are all castoffs due to minor imperfections. This entire sculptural wall is entirely composed of what would normally be considered garbage, but has been reclaimed and envisioned into something of beauty. Even the water that runs through the walls that moves the mallets to play the steelpan drums is constantly being recycled.
What separates the Living Chapel apart from other chapels, is not just the music and materials, but the living plants which cover seventy-five percent of the structure. In the early days of his mission, St. Francis would have his followers carefully maintain a green hedge around their chapel. In the Living Chapel, the hedge and the chapel have become one, with the nature reclaiming the shape. St. Francis insisted that we should give everything to God, making sure that the insides of his chapel were as colorful and artful as could be. In this spirit, the plants of the living walls become wilder and more colorful the further you move towards the inside of the chapel, spurred on by silver bird shapes, which augment the music of the chapel.
The most important design feature of the living Chapel however is one that most people will never see. To move the chapel to multiple locations, the chapel needed to break into pieces and travel without destroying the living plants, which themselves, made the pieces of chapel very heavy to move. To do this, the chapel was designed as an enormous jigsaw puzzle, that could go together and come apart. To prepare for any site situation, the foundation of the chapel has been designed with adjustable, pivoting feet. The foundations can be laid out, levelled, and then each piece of wall slides in and bolts into place. The irrigation system to water the plant and play the steelpan drums connects piece by piece as the walls are assembled, and solar panels power the irrigation system and night lighting. The decision to build the Living Chapel out of metal instead of other materials was due to the fact that the moveable chapel walls would be incredibly heavy with the living plants, and would be constantly covered with water.
In keeping with St. Francis’s example of service, designing and building the Living Chapel was an international, mostly volunteer effort, led by an architectural designer, Dr. Gillean Denny, in coordination with theologians, musicians, and other experts from around the world. The most notable contributions to the project came from the faculty and student teams from the Penn State Stuckman School of Architecture at The Pennsylvania State University, and the Department of Welding and Fabrication at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. Both institutions were instrumental in not only refining the design, but building the entire Living Chapel in a limited timeframe. The project could never have been realized without them.