The Rothko Chapel in Houston, founded in 1971 by the art patrons John and Dominique de Menil as an ecumenical site for both reflection and activism, will be closing on Monday for the rest of the year for the first phase of a $30 million restoration and campus expansion by Architecture Research Office.
It will erect three new buildings to support the chapel’s ongoing social justice programming and is replacing the building’s ceiling apparatus with a new skylight and digital lighting system. This will cast gentle natural light by day and uniform illumination by night for the first time on Mark Rothko’s 14 monumental black canvases, faceting the octagonal interior designed as a holistic work of art.
“We’re trying to restore the sanctity of the chapel, very close to what my father had intended for the space,” said Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son who is steering the building committee and capital campaign.
Commissioned by the de Menils in 1964, Rothko painted his perceptually subtle canvases in his carriage house studio on East 69th street in New York under a broad skylight, pulling a parachute across to modulate light. He modeled the interior of the chapel largely on the dimensions of this studio and insisted on a similar skylight. Yet he hadn’t taken into account the blinding light of Houston, which he never visited before his death in 1970.
“It was just a major problem from Day 1,” said Stephen Cassell, a principal of Architecture Research Office. The chapel’s ceiling was almost immediately plugged up to protect the paintings — most recently with a huge black umbrella-like baffle that radically altered the space.
Working with the lighting designer George Sexton, the architects are creating a skylight similar to Rothko’s original but with special glass and a system of louvers to soften the daylight. For darker hours, they are installing digital projectors that will focus light on each painting.
The chapel, which draws well over 100,000 visitors from more than 100 countries annually, is holding a three-day symposium on climate change starting Thursday in partnership with the neighboring University of St. Thomas. The event is part of the chapel’s programming on topics including interfaith and intercultural relations, human rights and mass incarceration. A new meeting house for public programs, as well as a visitor’s pavilion and administrative offices, will be completed in 2022.
“A lot of people don’t see the chapel as an institution” and understand its larger social justice and outreach work, Mr. Cassell said. “This really gives them the place to do it.”