An Island of Serenity within an Urban Campus: The Kresge Chapel

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MIT Kresge Chapel Modern Church Building on Campus

This is the fifth article in our brief spotlight series on Modern Chapels in the U.S.

Building: Kresge (MIT) Chapel
Architect: Eero Saarinen (1910 - 1961)
Designed & Built:  1953-1955/56
Renovation: 2014 - 2015
Address: MIT Campus, Cambridge MA
Building Size: 1,963 SF
Sculptors: Theodore Roszak (1907 - 1981) & Harry Bertoia (1915 - 1978)

We must still create, but we would like to bring back some of the great awareness that existed in the past, expressed in our own forms and technology.” - Eero Saarinen

The Client & Idea

After the end of WWII, certain colleges questioned the exclusive use of a classical architectural vocabulary in their campus buildings and began to carefully add new buildings in a modern style. Among these was the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge which began creating a more progressive image for its campus expansions with a series of modernist buildings that continues even today. The first of these is a pair of structures designed in 1953-54 by Eero Saarinen, that remain two of America’s most iconic mid-century structures.

The pair, a non-denominational Chapel and a multi-purpose performance hall - Kresge Auditorium – became the focal point of a non-academic portion of the campus centered on student life and indicating a new interest by the school in the arts and humanities, as well as the traditional sciences. Saarinen brilliantly played the two diverse functions off against one another, making the chapel a quiet, introverted “island of serenity” within the urban campus – a brick cylinder without windows, surrounded by a shallow moat, while the auditorium was its complete opposite, with nearly all glass walls under one of Saarinen’s famous swooping shell roofs.

The Architect

Earo Saarinen, of Finnish descent, was the son of a famous architect, Eliel Saarinen, who designed the campus of, and later taught at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan which Eero attended, along with students like Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll and other luminaries of modern design. After a series of studies in Europe and at Yale, he also taught at Cranbrook, working in his father’s architectural office until Eliel Saarinen’s death in 1950, after which it became Eero Saarinen and Associates.

His designs deviated from his father’s blend of traditional and modern, towards a much more sculptural and non-stylistic approach, exploring in each design current building technology and materials, that led to diverse and unpredictable forms. In this sense, his work is referred to by historians as “second generation” modernism, branching out from the typical glass boxes of the modern pioneers, the International Style architects. Dispensing with any personal style, each project for Saarinen was a completely new problem, demanding its own original artistic solution. He quickly became well-known and sought after, with his image on the cover of a 1956 issue of Time magazine, describing his as “The Maturing Modern.” A few of his most recognizable designs after the MIT Chapel include Dulles International Airport (1962), the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport (1962) and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis (1965).

The Building

MIT modern church Kresge Chapel interior

Saarinen said at the time he was designing the chapel, that he tried to create a "self-contained, inward-feeling environment," with an atmosphere of "spiritual unworldliness." He achieved this with a solid brick cylinder, 50 feet in diameter and 30 feet high, enclosing a nearly windowless space lit only by a circular skylight filtering natural light down through a delicate and dramatic Harry Bertoia sculpture - of rectangular metal "leaves" - to land on a simple marble altar. Around the edges of the chapel, light is brought upward into the space from shimmering reflections off the surrounding moat through a thin horizontal band of glass close to the floor.

On the exterior, a series of shallow arches support the upper wall of uninterrupted, textured brick, all of which sits within the boundary of the circular shallow pool separating the chapel from the campus lawn. On the roof is a tall, modern aluminum spire and bell tower designed by the sculptor Theodore Roszak in 1956. To the chapel’s east, a long brick wall, ending the narthex, sits against a pair of London Plane tree groves, further separating the chapel from the campus and the city. This is where the stained glass entry leads one into the inner sanctum of the chapel itself.

The American composer, Aaron Copland, composed his 13 minute “Canticle of Freedom” for the dedication of the chapel in 1955. Today, the Chapel is used for religious services, memorial services and concerts.

"Fifty years after the construction of... the chapel, architects still make pilgrimages with their sketchbooks and cameras, and try to figure out how this master of mid-century modernism did so much with seemingly so little." - William Mitchell

If you're an enthusiast of mid-century modern architecture, we invite you to search our curated collection of all mid-century modern homes for sale today.

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