A Sneak Preview of the Newly Renovated Rothko Chapel

by Christopher Blay September 9, 2020
Rothko Chapel interior, photo credit-BRYAN SCHUTMAAT for WSJ. Magazine

Rothko Chapel interior. Photo credit: Bryan Schutmaat for the Wall Street Journal

Houston’s Rothko Chapel, which closed 18 months ago on March 4, 2019, was scheduled to reopen last December. The reopening was pushed to June, a decision that was announced in February, before the Great Lockdown of 2020 brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic. Now slated to reopen sometime this fall, the Wall Street Journal Magazine shares a first look inside the newly renovated Chapel.

“My father was always interested in the timeless, in those questions and matters in human existence that have enduring resonance,” says Christopher Rothko, son of Mark Rothko. “Walking into the restored chapel one cannot help but be swept up by the breadth and compass of his vision. We have followed that vision and allowed the chapel to speak, for the first time, with maximum clarity and resonance.”

The Chapel and its campus (which has undergone renovations in the past) has been under improvements, upgrades, and new construction over the past 18 months. Inside, the work has included removal of the overhead baffle and replacement of the central skylight to allow daylight to permeate the interior, as was originally intended by Rothko and John and Dominique de Menil, the Chapel’s founders. WSJ Magazine reports, “Laminated glass and angled louvers now diffuse and redirect sunlight coming into the vestibule, while on darker days and early evenings, a ring of digital projectors delivers a fixed level of light onto the paintings. George Sexton Associates used this same system to illuminate the Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. ”

Rothko Chapel oculus, photo credit-BRYAN SCHUTMAAT for WSJ. Magazine

Rothko Chapel oculus. Photo credit: Bryan Schutmaat for the Wall Street Journal

The New York-based firm Architecture Research Office (ARO) are the designers and overseers of the “Opening Spaces” plan, a multi-year $30 million capital campaign that includes the ultimate expansion of the Chapel’s campus in collaboration with George Sexton Associates, the lighting designers for the Chapel.

“This is the de Menils’ and Rothko’s original intent, to allow you to feel the transcendent power of art,” says Stephen Cassell, principal and co-founder of ARO. “That transcendent power really is strengthened by that connection to nature.”

Rothko Chapel, Photo credit-BRYAN SCHUTMAAT for WSJ. Magazine

The new Suzanne Deal Booth Welcome House, designed by ARO. Photo credit: Bryan Schutmaat for the Wall Street Journal

Since it was commissioned in 1964 and dedicated in 1971 by John and Dominique de Menil, the Byzantine-inspired octagonal building housing 14 site-specific Rothko works has served as a Houston institution dedicated to both art and social justice. The non-denominational spiritual space, which the de Menils commissioned from Rothko, regularly hosts talks and symposia on issues ranging from civil rights and gender equality to the lasting effects of climate change on humanity.

Rothko Chapel trees, Photo credit-BRYAN SCHUTMAAT for WSJ. Magazine

The chapel’s exterior, with a freshly planted stand of birch trees in the background. Photo credit: Bryan Schutmaat for the Wall Street Journal

“Rothko wanted his paintings to be viewed in daylight, as that constantly changes and animates the space,” states Adam Yarinsky, principal and co-founder of ARO. “The impetus around these changes was always to try and improve the quality of the daylighting, because it was too bright. You could sense there was light coming in but it was so throttled down that you didn’t feel that kind of spiritual connection.”

The Rothko Chapel is currently closed, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. For more information, please visit the Chapel’s website here.

To read a recent Texas Monthly feature on the Chapel’s renovations by Glasstire’s founder Rainey Knudson, please go here.

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