Spring 2014 Mexico Studio

This post is number three chronicling the travels of the Spring 2014 Mexico Studio. The instructor on the trip was Luis Montalvo, Director of Media Arts at the BAC, and the students were: Fernando Garcia, Jose Gonzalez, Marcus Cantu, Marwan Ghabour, Jamaal Siddiqui and Anastasia Lyons.

Tlapan Chapel
March 21, 2014

The big day has arrived. We head south in the van in the morning to visit the site of what is commonly described as Luis Barragan’s masterpiece architectural work: the light-filled Tlalpan Chapel in the Convent of the Capuchinas Sacramentarias.

The cloister is closed off to the street, its austere facade announces nothing of the treasure contained within. The Capuchinas live in seclusion in their convent and chapel designed and paid for by the deeply religious Barragan himself in 1955, and they guard this site as their sacred home. Within the cloister the Tlalpan Chapel is open only by appointment to visitors. Upon entering all visitors are stripped of cameras, phones, sketchbooks and pens. Naked of these modern devices visitors are allowed to enter this sacred space equipped only with their senses to feel and hopefully record the experience. We wait at the large wooden door to the street until the moment of our appointment when we are greeted by one of the sisters, and are asked to surrender our belongings on a desk in a side room just after the entrance hallway vestibule.

We wait in the sunken courtyard paved with lava rock. A monumental white cross is embedded in the white wall opposite a yellow lattice wall that accompanies a side stairway towards where families visit. I float my hand across the smooth water that flows silently over the edges of a great black-stone fountain in the center of the patio. We move to enter the main chapel, just after a compressive moment dedicated to the sisters’ devotion. The moment when the huge and heavy wooden door to the chapel opened was, we all agreed, one of the single most affecting moments of the entire trip. From the dark entrance room the door swung open to reveal a space reverberating with colored light. The sense of entering a sacred space was visceral.

The experience of this chapel, as one strives to burn it into memory while immersed in silence, is more profoundly affected by its insistence on the present. Light passes through yellow glass, and bounces off the red and orange walls, to fill the enormously tall space with a thick, warm ochre light. The light that washes into the space laterally with its source hidden behind a pointed wall, creates a dramatic effect as it back-lights a massive plain cross which stands next to the altar. The already yellow and orange light collects in the big, gold rectangular altarpiece triptic- a sculpture by Mathias Goeritz. All the rich hues in this chapel change second by second with the time of day, from yellow-gold, to rich pink and deep red - it is a shame in a way that we are not able to for a prolonged time in these pews and experience that thick colored light slowly changing. They say that Barragan himself would come and sit for hours on end, in the back-left corner of the main chapel, caressing the surface of the triangular wall, weeping.

In the visitor's chapel to the side, another dramatic effect of light is achieved through remarkable means. The visitor’s pews face a lattice wall that screens a view into the main chapel. From above, a hidden slit window permits light to bend inside, and wash against an indiscernibly pale-green wall descending creating a screen of cool light in front of and against the grid; this cool ambiance at the threshold of the side chapel creates a striking contrast with the warm radiance of the main chapel beyond. We were all for a time wordless to describe this space, so impressed were we with the unique qualities of light and the atmosphere of serenity in the Tlalpan Chapel.

...the words beauty, inspiration, enchantment, magic, sorcery, charm and also serenity, silence, intimacy and amazement have disappeared at an alarming rate in publications devoted to architecture. All of them have found a loving welcome in my soul, and even if I am far from claiming to have made them complete justice in my work, they have never ceased to be my beacon.
-Luis Barragan, acceptance speech for the Pritzker Prize 1980