Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 3, 2012

Wayfarer’s Chapel

In some Pre-Raphaelite vision, half-awake, half-asleep, you have seen this place. In your dreaming state, you stand on a bluff above a vast, blue ocean with waves foaming on the rocks at the foot of the cliffs below you. Overlooking this expanse of blue, you stand inside a chapel made of purest crystal. The branches of deep-green, primeval redwood trees embrace the building, while sunlight filters down through them and lights the space with a luminescent magic (click on photos to enlarge).

Because I have a photo and — so far as you know — haven’t mastered the capturing of images from the World Beyond — you understand that this is not some fantastic imagining, but a real place. It is, in fact, just a few miles from where I’m sitting at my desk right now: it’s the Wayfarer’s Chapel:

I walk the aisle in the Wayfarer’s Chapel

Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. (referred to as Lloyd Wright, to distinguish him from his father)  in the late 1940s, and built in 1949-51, the chapel commands a stunning vista westward across the Pacific ocean and Catalina Island. It’s an hour drive from Los Angeles (head more or less due south from downtown, until you run out of continent). Only the locals or devotees of mid century architecture will lead you here, but, if you’re a young bride from the South Bay, THIS is the place you want to hold your wedding (according to Wikipedia, it appeared as the site of weddings AND funerals in “The O.C.,” although I missed that sterling bit of filmed entertainment). As it happens, The Counselor and I did attend a wedding there, and, yes, it’s like being married in a scene from a storybook.

Lloyd Wright was an astute and talented disciple of his father, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the geometric patterns and stonework detailing are recognizably “Wrightian.”

Wayfarer’s Chapel Bell Tower

Lloyd Wright did a lot of work on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where the Chapel is located, and a number of houses he designed are scattered across Palos Verdes. The Chapel, however, is probably his masterpiece. While you can drive up to some of the houses he designed and look at them (some of them are inaccessible in gated communities — thanks, rich people), you can visit the Chapel and, if you get there when there’s no wedding in progress, go inside. If you’re keen on seeing it, pick a weekday. Weekends are heavily booked with weddings.

Stepping inside the Chapel is unlike almost any other experience afforded by architecture of the mid-century, and particularly distinct from most architecture of sacred spaces. Here, if anywhere, Wright the Younger transcended the accomplishments of his father. The senior Wright insisted that before one entered a Space, there must be compression: one almost always enters FLW’s buildings through narrow, low-ceilinged entrances that open to larger, carefully controlled interior spaces. Our own California ranch house (1955) reflects this Wrightian aesthetic: from the front door, one passes through a low passageway before the large cathedral ceilinged space opens up.

The Wayfarer’s Chapel has none of that low-to-high dynamic. Everything is exalted, soaring and open. It’s a structure that — a kind of anti-architecture — strives to disappear and elevate the individual into the sky beyond the branches of the trees and out through the enormous circular windows suspended at each end of the chapel.

Most sacred architecture creates a sense of loftiness and elevation by dwarfing the visitor with immense vertical structures, accented and heightened with domes or arches. The designers of the world’s great sacred spaces — Koln, Rheims, St. Peter’s, Hagia Sophia, Chartres — all pulled their results from the same bag of stunts. To begin with, these are typically massive, iconic structures that loom overhead and fill the entire field of vision as one approaches them. Let’s see if I have an example …. yes, here’s York Minster, in the north of England (pardon the poor condition of this 40 year-old 35mm slide)

York Minster

You have to step back a long way just to fit the building into the photograph. I was standing about a quarter of a mile away on the city walls for this one. Thank you, Kodachrome; we miss you.

Once inside, the visitor delights to discover that the interiors of these places are equally vast and lit by any number of clever tricks. Lloyd Wright’s chapel may be unique in the way it strives to eliminate the structure and places the visitor in an utterly open, overwhelmingly serene space that looks outward, ever outward. There are no adroit manipulations of scale or lighting, because the scale is provided by the trees outside and the light is the unimpeded light of the sky that pours through the glass roof and walls. This is the opposite of those massive temples of worship; it beckons one inward only to lift attention and direct the focus outside, into the trees and the sky. The structure strives to be invisible — a daring, revolutionary concept, totally at odds with the aesthetic of Wright Senior, who strove to remind every visitor that one is in HIS space at every turn.

Lloyd Wright served as construction manager for his father’s iconic projects in Los Angeles in the ’20s, including Barnsdall (Hollyhock) House, dealing with the day-to-day challenges of ushering The Master’s designs into reality against the quotidian realities of gravity and budgets — matters ol’ dad could never quite take seriously. Make no mistake, the senior Wright’s five existing structures in L.A. are fundamentally IMPORTANT works of the architecture trade. Go see them when you visit here. I’ve written about some of them HERE .

But, it’s impressive and inspiring to see the Chapel, in which Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. seems to have shed himself of every shred of  the overpowering reputation of his father to create something utterly, perfectly NEW.

This IS a church. It’s part of the Swedenborgian Church of North America, about which I can’t admit to know much, other than that it’s a unitarian assembly that figured prominently in the beliefs of many individuals who did not ascribe to the views of more established forms of worship in Europe in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

When you come to visit, let’s go see the Chapel. It’s worth the trip.

The official website of the Chapel is worth a click or two, as well, with some excellent photography. See it HERE.

A usage note. Technically, something with a low ceiling is “low-ceiled,” not low-ceilinged.” I know that. I just think the latter makes more sense to today’s readers.

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017

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Responses

  1. Beautiful chapel! I’m not familiar with the Swedenborgians either, but do know some of the Unitarian beliefs. Interesting analysis of F.L.W. Sr.

    Like

  2. When I saw those first two photos, at first I thought we were back in Merry England. Amazing this place is in your own back yard and designed by a world renowned American architect! Based on your blogs over the past couple of months, it appears that we will have a lot of interesting places to see on our next visit to RPV. Thanks so much for sharing (and educating).

    P.S. As you did make a literary allusion — “primeval trees embrace the building,” perhaps we will soon be treated to UWS’ scholarly (but brief) analysis of Beowulf? 🙂

    Like


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