Astudy in contrasts, French architect Marc Rolinet’s Chapel of the Deaconesses of Reuilly brings together all the classical functions of a church in two pure forms: a stark triangle of glass and, inside it, a rounded, egglike structure made of wood. A recent addition to the central Versailles home of this French order of Protestant nuns (founded in 1841), the chapel was completed in March 2008. It resides on parklike grounds—quite serene in spite of being located next to a train station—that accommodate several buildings, including the original grand manor, a hospital, a conference center, and a small complex, also by Rolinet, of arts studios and rooms for novices (2001).
For years the deaconesses, who attach great importance to social service and exchange, would come from their small group homes all over the world for meetings and prayer, holding their services in a tiny century-old chapel and in a stationary tent erected for the typical overflow of visitors. Although not particularly comfortable, the tent had the advantage of not requiring a building permit. But when it was demolished by a storm in 1999, the deaconesses realized it was time for a larger and more permanent structure.
But, eh bien, what about the building permit? In Versailles there is an architect in charge of preservation for the famous château and its surroundings. In practice, says Rolinet, the whole town qualifies as “surroundings,” and the deaconesses needed this architect’s permission to demolish the old chapel and build a new one. With audible relief, Rolinet recounts that the project was immediately approved.
“I had two main concepts for the design of this chapel,” recalls Rolinet, who has offices in both Paris and Geneva. “One was that it had to consist of strong, simple shapes with roots in Christianity, even though Protestants are not strong on symbols. The other was the use of a second skin to separate the actual chapel from the building around it.” His solution is an ethereal glass envelope that protects its precious package. He fitted the design with wood slats and finely woven metal-mesh panels along the facade facing an adjacent train station to provide privacy without diminishing the transparency. This outer layer of glazing also minimizes noise.
Following the uneven topography of the site, the chapel nestles into a hill that the architect shaped into a series of terraces to emphasize the contrast between the landscape as a natural phenomenon and the chapel as a man-made intervention. He carved the slope behind the building to allow daylight in and create space for an emergency exit. A footbridge here leads to a rear entrance used by the nuns. The public enters via a path through wooden doors near the apex of the triangle.
The 6,675-square-foot chapel is not an inward-looking cloister, but a volume that is sheltered yet open and welcoming. It is also in harmony with its environs. “The chapel’s social function had a major influence on the materials and costs,” says Rolinet. “I suggested thinner glass for the facades and roof, but the sisters insisted that it be warm enough inside to use all year. That meant we needed special glass.”
The laminated glazings selected, for both the facades and roof panels, are layered compositions (with different configurations for the vertical and horizontal surfaces) of tempered glass of varying thicknesses, with air gaps in between, some of which are fortified by a structural interlayer that provides strength and stability to the overall construction. This allows the building to be lighter and stronger than with other glazings, and made it possible to use 7.2-foot-long trapezoidal panels for the roof’s glass base, which at 2.15 inches thick is supported by galvanized steel columns running along the inside of the facades. To control solar heat gain and shed rainwater, Rolinet placed a pitched layer of angled wood planks on galvanized steel tubular supports above the glass triangle like a Corbusian brise-soleil.
Supplementing the insulating properties of the laminated glass, Rolinet installed radiant floor heating and a heat pump, which captures and recycles the heat from the outside air. Keeping mechanical intrusion to a minimum, he devised a clever venting system whereby fresh air enters from under the benches around the perimeter inside the wooden structure. As it heats up, air rises and exits through the interstices between the wooden slats.
The warm, cocoonlike inner sanctuary—made possible by sophisticated materials and systems—establishes a thoughtful balance between technology and craft. Built by hand, the wooden egg features strips of pine curved piece-by-piece in a steam tank created for the project. The floor slopes gently toward a simple altar. Instead of fixed pews, the architect specified a few sturdy chairs for the deaconesses, folding chairs for the congregation, and the continuous benches built into the sides of the rounded walls. The informality of the seating enhances the intimacy of the space. The filtered light, too, is marvelous, with the sun throwing ever-changing, dappled patterns on the floor as it moves across the sky. “Throughout history, church buildings have been transformed by light entering their windows,” Rolinet remarks. “Here, the building itself is the window.”