With nine offices in Germany and abroad, von Gerkan Marg und Partners (gmp) is known for such major architectural works as the Berlin Central Station (2006) and numerous other buildings and developments throughout Europe, Asia, and South Africa. But its recent renovation of a simple seminary chapel for the Evangelical Academy in Hofgeismar, Germany—a sleepy town some 137 miles northeast of Frankfurt—demonstrates that this international firm also produces modest projects with equal attention to detail. A small jewel, this serene, 650-square-foot single chamber is striking in its utter materiality and translucence.
Located on the ground floor of the 230-year-old academy’s library and dormitory building—a former spa dating from 1770—this 311⁄2-by-131⁄2-foot space within a space serves as a quiet room for teaching and reflection, enveloped by luminous, iridescent ceiling and wall surfaces, illuminated from behind. There are no windows visible from within it, and no distractions. One does not notice the rolling Hessian hills outside or the people strolling along the wooded campus talking among the 18th-century dormitories and classrooms. More specifically, one does not notice that the new chapel was built inside a preexisting one on a newly erected, freestanding steel structural frame—a kind of cage set on a concrete base.
According to gmp cofounder Meinhard von Gerkan, “The main idea was to make a box within a box: to take away everything that was existing, and to disturb normal sensory reactions.” Von Gerkan and gmp project leader Joachim Zais achieved this by honing the sanctuary to what they deemed to be its essence: a Minimalist rectilinear volume surfaced with two disparate materials—both lustrous, yet humble—in dialogue. So the floor and three walls merge, simply clad in phenol-resin-coated birch-plywood sheets normally used for concrete form boards. The suspended ceiling and adjacent wall—which appear to float, covering the building’s exterior windows from inside—are fitted with jade-hued, recycled-glass-ceramic panels reinforced by light-permeable, glass-fiber honeycomb boards. An ingenious lighting system backing the panels casts an ethereal glow that dominates the space.
To create it, the architects specified two discreet sources of light. These are installed about 10 inches behind the glass, surrounding—not obstructing—the existing windows. The first light source is a series of incandescent tubes that line the internal steel frame, masking its skeleton from view. Indeed, the only evidence of the structure is an equidistant set of thin horizontal ribs, which secure the glass panels. The second source is composed of an array of 950 incandescent, 25-watt A-lamps, the sockets bolted to iron sheets fitted into the frame, behind the glass. The panels tilt open on the walls and can be removed from the ceiling to facilitate swapping out the lamps and to allow for natural ventilation at the windows. Floor-mounted wall washers lining the perimeter around the base of the wood walls highlight the rich brown finish.
When illuminated, the chapel is wrapped in a homogeneous bright light that radiates a spiritual warmth appropriate for the room’s function. “It is smooth and inviting, totally different from the light coming in from the outside or anywhere else,” von Gerkan says. “And it is extraordinary for the people assembling there.”