Local Architecture Firm To Be Honored

April 16, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The winner of the national Young Architect of the Year Award also has brought new plaudits to his employer, Schemata Inc.

Markku Allison, the recipient of the American Institute of Architects young architect honors for 2001, has learned that his design for the renovated chapel at West Catholic High School has earned an award sponsored jointly by Faith & Form magazine and the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture.

The award, actually one of many that has gone to the project, was announced late last year and officially will be conferred upon Schemata at the forum's biennial conference in October in Washington, D.C.

Allison's design, constructed adjacent to the school's cafeteria, is simple and circular, focusing on the simple altar table at the center of the room.

Jurors who conferred the honor spoke of the design as very simple, but highly spiritual.

The curved brick wall at the front of the chapel arcs into the school's cafeteria, strongly suggesting the special place that it sets off.

" align=right border=0>Another strong announcement exists in the chapel's circular anterior wooden shell which is slightly elevated on posts.

The shell's elevation evokes something of a sense of the ethereal in that it allows interior light to flow outward from the place of worship. The chapel lies inside a larger, higher and much darker room, so that its warm lighting draws the visitor's attention.

Allison said the primary strategy in the design was to create an intimate room within a room that would embrace the students as they engage in worship and contemplation.

In evaluating the design, the jurors wrote that …the materials are very good for a space with no natural light. The dark ceiling and the walls beyond help focus the visitor's attention, and the combination of brick and wood provides a sense of warmth and comfort.

This renovation, the jurors added, creates a very quiet, contemplative area that would be very welcome in any high school.

Allison said Schemata is proud of the project, not only for the sense of oasis that we've created, but because it's a beautiful example of our ability to do a lot aesthetically on a very limited budget. The project came in on budget at $75,000. 

Lighting inside the chapel accents the holy water font at each entrance, the crucifix, the adjoining pulpit and the altar.

Situating the chapel's altar in the center of the congregants is a relatively recent innovation by the church to bring the clergy and the Mass physically closer to worshippers.

For much of the church's history, the altar stood at one end of the church, the priest stood in front of and faced the altar, and the congregation looked on from behind him. Indeed, during the heyday of the giant medieval cathedrals, ornate wooded and metalwork screens often virtually concealed the altar and clergy from the congregation.

The so-called high altar — often an ornate marvel of gothic or baroque art — remains in its traditional site in most older Catholic churches throughout the world.

But in almost all cases — including St. Peter's in the Vatican — the Mass today is celebrated at a plain table with the clergy facing the congregation.

In a sense, the chapel at West Catholic is part of the church's return to the practices of its early centuries.

That's when the celebration of the Eucharist — the spiritual celebration and re-enactment of the Last Supper — occurred in any worshipper's handy spare room and the altar was just a table with a clean linen cloth upon it.

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