Designing to Belong

Building community at Cathedral of Hope

What goes through your mind when you step into a space? It’s a simple act performed by people around the world every day and one that we rarely think about twice. When we step across a threshold, most of us probably analyze our comfort – is it too hot or too cold in here? – or how well we like the aesthetic decisions made by the design team. Who would stop to consider: Do I belong here? By providing a sense of belonging, businesses can attract and retain more customers, apartments can transform into homes, and schools can be places where children learn as much from each other as from their teachers.

What is it about a space that makes people feel like they belong? That’s a challenging question with no one answer. Indeed, there may be as many answers as there are people on this planet. But finding commonalities among the answers can help us speak less to our current interests and more to our shared primal sentiments instilled through countless generations. These sentiments, transcending trends, personalities, and politics, speak to what makes us human and how we share our lives with those around us.

This was the basis for Philip Johnson’s design of the Interfaith Peace Chapel at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. Home to the country’s largest LGBTQ+ Christian congregation, the chapel, along with the neighboring bell tower, were designed to welcome everyone regardless of their religious or secular beliefs. Originally conceptualized in the 1990s, the project went on a budgetary hiatus for about 10 years, relaunching just after Johnson’s death. The project was picked up by Gary Cunningham, FAIA, of Cunningham Architects, who had worked alongside Johnson during the original conceptual design. He found himself interpreting Johnson’s design intention posthumously.

When the project was picked back up around 2006, the ultimate purpose for the chapel came into focus. Mike Piazza, then pastor of the cathedral, said the chapel design sought to be a welcoming space for all during a time of heightened anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11 and the launch of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The George W. Bush Institute [at Southern Methodist University] was being designed at this same time,” says Piazza. “The relaunch of the [chapel] project inspired a balance of sorts to the institution that would archive documents from wars that were underway.”

Michael Nelson, then a cathedral member who acted as the owner’s representative during design and construction, recalls conversations on creating a space with an enveloping sense of belonging. “That informed all of our considerations from the beginning. We wanted the space to be welcoming to all faith communities.”

As it turned out, Johnson’s 10-year-old concept for the chapel worked well for this mission. The design is a continuation of the forms Johnson created for Da Monsta, the visitors center at his famed Glass House, as well as the sculptural work of Frank Stella. Cunningham and his team, now in the role of associate architects on the project, faced the significant feat of extracting a full design from a series of models and sketches — the only documentation of the concept design left behind by Johnson. “There was a lot of mystery in the process,” says Cunningham. “But that was how Johnson worked.” While that mystery created challenges, it also provided opportunities to modify the building in slight ways to reflect the new purpose set forth by the cathedral: creating a space where everyone belongs.

When you step inside the chapel, there is indeed a present comfort, quickly putting you at ease and calming your mind while at the same time heightening your senses. During an event, there is an invigorating cacophony that feels familiar.

When you are alone, you can hear your own breath, your own footsteps, and the space becomes intensely contemplative.

Visually, the form of the space is unperturbed, free of decoration and fussy details. Except for the floor, there are no straight lines in the building, yet you don’t feel of balance. You feel the same warm embrace from the space whether alone or with 50 other people.

The subtle texture and coolness of the walls invite you to run your finger along them as you walk the perimeter, the slightest amount of clay dust being disturbed by your touch and floating gently to the floor. You can also smell the faintest hint of earthy musk. Something about the combination of these sensations is comforting, though the effect is subtle and vague.

How all these elements combine to create a sense of belonging takes deeper analysis. The first consideration should be the form of the building. While complex to design and document, Cunningham said, the form comes across as deceptively simple and humble in person. It doesn’t adhere to any specific style of architecture. Rather, its familiarity can be traced back to the caves and other natural spaces where our distant ancestors gathered. The acoustics within the space are also reminiscent of natural rock enclosures. It is no wonder that our ears quickly adjust and find aural comfort in the chapel despite what might be, in another room, excessive reverberance.

The scale of the space is also important to the feeling of belonging. Although there is some good height in the chapel, the vertical curvature of the walls hugs the space above us and scales it down to a more human experience. The only natural light comes from above, creating an ethereal atmosphere that provides a sense of awe without grandiosity.

Finally, the material selection was critical. The walls are finished in pigmented Arizona clay. It is simple, raw, and earthy. The clay does indeed exfoliate when touched. Though it requires a bit of extra cleaning as the fine dust settles on the floor along the perimeter of the space, the phenomenon creates the distinct earthy smell. Also notable is what is lacking — any indication of religious iconography.

Cunningham notes that the overall effect of the design is that the chapel feels like a sacred space — not sacred in the religious sense, but in a personal, primal way. The room is reminiscent of the sacred spaces sought out in nature by our Meso-American predecessors. The caves, waterfalls, forest clearings, and meadows where they gathered connected them to nature and made them feel a part of a larger world, like they belonged here on Earth. So it is with the Interfaith Peace Chapel, a descendant of the ancient transformation of these nature-sacred spaces into built environments. It is a space where we can all feel like we belong.

There is one additional component to consider if a space is to truly foster a sense of belonging — and one that cannot be designed. It is the people who occupy the space. A building’s design may have every intention of being welcoming, but if its occupants do not embrace that same sensibility, the welcoming atmosphere will be lost.

This may be where the chapel truly excels. The congregants of the Cathedral of Hope embody and radiate a warm spirit that is disarming and comforting. When I stopped by the chapel one Sunday with my family to see the space in use, everyone welcomed us in. As we stepped through the doors into the middle of a discussion on transgender health, one man walked over to us and said, “You are welcome here.” Even better, we were invited by no less than five people to grab some tacos at the potluck.

After that visit, I asked Piazza if he felt the space was successful in its goal to give every visitor the sense of belonging that was at the core of the chapel’s existence. He didn’t hesitate before confirming: “People were struck by the building as a peaceful, centering space. People felt the spirit of what we tried to accomplish in the space.” Within the first few years of opening, the chapel regularly hosted a traditional Jewish congregation, an LGTBQ+ Jewish congregation, a Sufi group, and an exiled Roman Catholic congregation, among others. Now over a decade later, it continues to be a place where people, no matter what their beliefs or background, can feel welcome.

It is both fitting and paradoxical that the chapel was design by Philip Johnson, who was gay and notoriously unreligious.

He was also an admirer of Nazi architecture and expressed antisemitic views at various points during his life. How can it be that such a polarizing figure could design a space that expresses so well a sense of belonging?

He was reluctant to even take on this project, according to Cunningham. After many conversations, however, Piazza was able to convince Johnson to design the chapel. Over the next few years, Johnson came to see his design as a way of lifting up the LGTBQ+ community to which he belonged. As the last built work by an icon of modernist architecture, the chapel can, and should, serve as an opportunity to frame Johnson’s life and career, and ask us to reflect on how our elevation of great architecture cannot be ignorant of the architects themselves.

Ironically, creating a space in which we truly and fully feel a sense of belonging requires a lot of exclusion. We have to exclude barriers of all kinds, set aside grandiosity and frivolity in favor of humility, and — critically — banish hate.

Sadly, not everyone has seen the Interfaith Peace Chapel for the welcoming and embracing space it is. The building has been targeted by anti-LGBTQ+ graffiti and other hateful actions. Yet the congregation keeps its faith in its welcoming and loving mission, of which the chapel is merely an extension. Perhaps, in time, the chapel will come to be seen as not just a well-regarded example of modern architecture, but also as the space proving that any of us can gather and feel like we truly belong — together.

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