Houston’s Rothko Chapel Casts a New Light

When the meditative space reopens, a new skylight will filter the right amount of light on the 14 canvasses installed in the artist’s octagonal masterpiece

Rothko Chapel
Architecture Research Office

Mark Rothko believed that by simply exploring the relationship between colors he could express the spectrum of human emotions: “tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” as the artist once put it. But that alchemy never quite came together for the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, a major project centered around his art that opened in 1971, one year after the artist’s suicide.

Houston art patrons John and Dominique de Menil commissioned Rothko to work on the project in 1964, and the artist drafted his designs for it in his New York studio, which the chapel was partially modeled after. Notably, Rothko’s work space had a large skylight above it, which the artist could modulate using an old parachute. He conceived a similar design for the octagonal chapel, which would be lit by a large skylight that would subtly illuminate the 14 large-scale black and purple abstracts he was making for it.

The problem was, Rothko never visited Houston, and didn’t consider the expanse of Texas sunlight that would stream through such a large skylight. The skylight was such a problem that almost from the first day it opened, it had to be covered up to protect the paintings from fading.

To buffet the light, the chapel has since installed several umbrella-like baffles to block it, but they’ve been criticized for being intrusive and distracting in a place designed to focus on the canvases. “It was like a black disc hovering over you,” Stephen Cassell, a principal with the firm Architecture Research Office, which is working on the restoration, tells Nancy Kenney at The Art Newspaper.

Now, more than four decades after the non-denominational chapel’s opening, Hilarie M. Sheets at The New York Times reports it has closed for a nine-month renovation project that will update the chapel in an attempt to make it truer to Rothko’s initial vision for it.

The plan, advanced by lighting firm George Sexton Associates, is to replace the original skylight with an updated version that uses special glass and aluminum louvers to filter and lessen the intensity of the sunlight. Meanwhile, in darker hours, special lighting projectors will illuminate the paintings.

The new lighting promises to mimic the level of light Rothko got in his studio, which he loved and which lit up the canvasses just so.

“We’re trying to restore the sanctity of the chapel,” Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son, who is leading the effort, tells the Times’ Sheets.

The skylight won’t be the only change coming to the chapel. Over the years, the space has become a noted center for social justice, but the stream of speakers and events has proven disruptive for those traveling just to experience the meditative space.

To accommodate the many who use the chapel, the plan is to build an administrative and archival center on its 2-acre grounds, as well as a center for public programs. There are also plans to turn a bungalow across the street from the chapel into a guesthouse, as well as plant a meditation garden on the site. All of the work, which is projected to cost $30 million, is anticipated to be completed by 2021, when the chapel marks its 50th anniversary.

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