Simple Blessings

In the 12th century, Bernard of Clairvaux, a Benedictine monk, broke away from the Cluniac branch of the order, which he saw as having abandoned the ideals of poverty, piety and simplicity to indulge instead a taste for luxury and opulence. Bernard founded a new branch, the Cistercians, who constructed their abbeys deep in the forest, far from the temptations and distractions of towns and villages. Their buildings were very plain, unadorned by sculpture or stained glass, with frankly expressed structure, whitewash, and bare stone.

Bernard’s contemporary, Abbot Suger of St-Denis, maintained that the Cluniac propensity for rich ornamentation served the greater glory of God. Suger’s reconstruction of St-Denis essentially launched the Gothic, which would become the dominant ecclesiastical style in Western Europe for 300 years. The Cistercian abbeys remained relatively obscure, but their austerity would find favour centuries later in the matter-of-fact architecture of Protestant meeting houses, and, ultimately, would inform Modern sacred architecture, including two new places of worship on the outskirts of Toronto.

The Church of the Incarnation by Teeple Architects Inc., an Anglican parish in Oakville, a prosperous satellite city west of Toronto, is located on a well-wooded lot across from the Glen Abbey Golf Club, adjacent to heavily used Dorval Drive. Flanked on two sides by subdivision housing, the church is sited to provide a buffer from the busy street and create a sheltered courtyard facing its residential neighbours.

Although located quite close to the corner, the church is screened from the street by the wood lot and only becomes visible from a driveway access that draws traffic around the building, first to a drop-off by the main entrance and ultimately to a parking area. The approach accentuates the transition from the profane world represented by the arterial road to the sacred enclave of the church in the woods.

The building is essentially conceived as a large folded roof, split along a seam from which the sanctuary roof slopes up and the education wing roof slopes down. Where the building faces the wood lot, the roof folds down to engage the building faade, its copper cladding combining with wood windows, stucco and Wiarton stone to read as a dignified and quiet pavilion. The stone coursing emphasizes its horizontal dimension, and along with the large copper roof element, helps anchor the building.

Organized as an L in plan, one leg of the building houses the Sanctuary and the other a day care centre that also serves a Sunday school function, both of which face onto the landscaped courtyard. The two wings are separated by the narthex, which can be entered from either the drop-off or the courtyard side. It is within this space that the building’s spatial and architectonic complexities are most evident.

The split in the roof occurs right above the main entrance at the drop-off, with the rising roof drawing the eye upward and the visitor forward into the nave. To the right, the roof drops as it slopes over the education wing. As the seam splitting the two folded planes expands, the space between is used for clerestory glazing.

The Sanctuary is designed for a congregation of 250, but can be expanded into the narthex to accommodate 600 by means of a movable partition. This space allows for a high degree of flexibility, including alternative seating configurations and altar locations. Within the sanctuary, the importance of the roof as the primary architectural element is expressed by delicately detailed steel trusses and exposed wood deck. The diagonal orientation of the steel creates a sense of movement, and the wood deck, essentially unencumbered by services, soars above the serene space. Accented by custom-designed lighting fixtures, the minimal material palette–concrete floor, white-painted drywall, stone accents and mahogany millwork–sits in quiet counterpoint to the building’s dynamic formal expression.

Natural light plays an important role in the sanctuary, and is drawn in from a number of sources. A row of tall glazed wood doors faces the courtyard, providing access for outdoor worship in good weather. A glazed transom borrows light from the narthex, and a tall, narrow slit introduces a dramatic shaft of light and a contained view of the wood lot. Above the stone-lined niche that serves as an altar location, a large window with vertical wood slats introduces daylight and offers limited views of treetops.

Structural penetrations are deftly handled, particularly where the complex geometry of the steel trusses crosses from the narthex into the nave and education spaces. Millwork transom panels are used to mediate where structure crosses between rooms, transforming what could have been clumsy moments into well-resolved details that make the most of the building’s complex geometry.

The formal resolution of the L’Arche Dayspring Chapel by Joe Lobko Architect Inc. is more straightforward, but the two projects share some interesting commonalities. Located on Yonge Street in Richmond Hill, an affluent suburb north of Toronto, the Dayspring Chapel was designed for a local chapter of L’Arche Daybreak, an international organization of communities for people with disabilities and those living with them. Founded by Canadian Jean Vanier in 1964, and the subject of his popular book Becoming Human (Anansi Press, 1998), the organization provides an alternative to institutional models of care with the intent of allowing the disabled to live with a sense of community and dignity.

The L’Arche community in Richmond Hill was established in 1969 on a 20-acre farm property. Since that time, the community expanded substantially and outgrew the chapel established in the basement of one of the farmhouses. In the mid-1990s, feeling pressure from surrounding residential and commercial development, the community engaged Lobko’s office to develop a master plan for the site and, eventually, to design the chapel.

The chapel is sited to take advantage of an existing pond and to benefit from its proximity to Yonge Street, since many members of its congregation arrive from off-site locations. Landscaped berms are used to buffer the chapel from the busy street; a parking area provides a further layer of separation. A tower complete with a custom cast bell draws visitors to the entry and support wing, a long bar building that houses a generous entry hall, a multi-purpose room, kitchen and support spaces, washrooms and a bookshop.

The Sanctuary is essentially treated as a separate pavilion, roughly square in plan, linked to the entry hall by a narthex. Although the religious tradition surrounding the origins of L’Arche Daybreak was Roman Catholic, the community accommodates people from varied backgrounds. As a result, the Dayspring Chapel is conceived as non-denominational, requiring a high degree of flexibility within the worship space. In order to comfortably accommodate a congregation that varies in size from 30 to 200, a more intimate central space is defined within the larger Sanctuary by four large Douglas fir columns, with ample room at the perimeter for larger crowds. Douglas fir is used throughout for structure, providing material continuity and warm natural finishes across various spaces. As with the Oakville church, a spare material palette contributes to a unifying sense of calm.

The Dayspring Chapel also incorporates an extensive art program. Hans Rams, a German artist specializing in ecclesiastical art, created the stained glass for the Emmaus Chapel, tucked in behind the Sanctuary. He also co-ordinated an art program that incorporated, throughout the project, tiles cast by community members using materials such as leaves, stones and flowers found on the site. A pair of ceremonial entry doors to the Sanctuary were painted by Carolyn Whitney Brown as a composite of images generated by members of the Daybreak community. In addition, careful lighting design earned the project an International Illumination Design 2000 Award of Merit from the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA

Although designed by different architects for congregations of different denominations–and there are quite distinct architectural sensibilities at work in these two projects–some important similarities reveal a common approach to the challenge of creating sacred spaces in a largely secular society. In contrast to the inward-looking, hermetic quality of traditional sacred spaces, both these churches engage the immediate landscape as part of the context for contemplative spiritual experience: the Church of the Incarnation includes an outdoor worship space, while the Dayspring Chapel offers direct views of an adjacent pond and wetland. Both use natural elements as a way of establishing a “sacred,” edenic foil to their “profane” surroundings.

In their relationships to landscape, expressive exposed structures and simple material palettes, the Church of the Incarnation and L’Arche Dayspring Chapel testify to the staying power of unostentatious Cistercian simplicity and its applicability within a Modernist language. Bernard would have approved. ca

Church of the Incarnation, Oakville, Ontario

Teeple Architects Inc.

Client: Archdiocese of Niagara

Architect team: Stephen Teeple, Matthew Smith, Cheryl Atkinson, Rob Knight, Kael Opie, Marc Downing

Structural: Yolles Partnership Inc.

Mechanical: Hidi Rae Consulting Engineers

Electrical: Crossey Engineering Ltd.

Landscape: Vertechs Design

Interiors: Teeple Architects Inc.

Contractor: Tasis Contractors Inc.

Area: 890 m2

Budget: $1.72 million

Completion: 1998

Photography: Richard Johnson, Tom Arban

L’Arche Dayspring Chapel, Richmond Hill, Ontario

Joe Lobko Architect Inc.