Originally commissioned by Houston art patrons Dominique and John de Menil and completed in 1971, Mark Rothko envisioned the chapel interior with fourteen deeply dark color block paintings, as a spiritual experience that approximates consciousness itself. The original exterior elements of the chapel are structured around a primary axis defined by the relationship of three elements: the irregular octagonal brick chapel, a reflecting pool, and Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk that is sited at the far end of the pool.
The new vision for the Rothko Chapel landscape creates a chapel-in-the-park by removing all non-essential structures from the site and reaffirming the powerful relationship between the Broken Obelisk and Chapel through pavement and hedge configurations. A two-phase project, the initial scope of work includes renovations to the Chapel skylight, construction of a Welcome House, and a new vision for open space just east of the Chapel. The arrival sequence will guide visitors into the sacred core - away from the most urban elements of the surrounding neighborhood through a series of calm, quiet, shaded landscape rooms. These outdoor chambers provide visitors the time and space to prepare physically and mentally, first for Broken Obelisk, then the Chapel, and finally Mark Rothko’s paintings. The sequence is calibrated to allow the eye to continually scale down while providing increasing shade in anticipation of the transition from the usually bright Texas sunlight to the Chapel’s interior.
In reverse sequence, exiting the Chapel moves visitors through a range of spaces with tree-filtered views of the campus, allowing for the opportunity to reflect on the art pieces in preparation for re-engaging with the city. Constructed during phase one, two balanced, formally concordant blocks framed by tightly planted river birches (Betula nigra) to the east of the site, provide spaces for gathering to the south and quiet introspection to the north. During evening hours, the landscape rooms are lighted at low levels to meld into the surrounding neighborhood while Broken Obelisk stands as the central figure of the campus.
Today, the Rothko Chapel is one of the world's first broadly ecumenical centers, a holy place open to all religions and belonging to none. Driven by the Chapel’s dual vocation of contemplation and action, the new landscape creates spaces that encourage preparation, reflection, and activism. As the re-envisioned campus is manifested in the landscapes, the Chapel’s powerful mission is felt throughout.
Collaborators: Architecture Research Office, George Sexton Associates, Collaborative Engineering Group, Threshold Acoustics, Guy Nordenson and Associates, Walter P. Moore, Kendall/Heaton Associates