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St. Pius Chapel and Prayer Garden


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Archdiocese of New Orleans

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1,258 sq. feet

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This project won a 2016 AIA Small Projects Award. It originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ARCHITECT.

Text by Edward Keegan, AIA

When the archdiocese of New Orleans decided to build a new chapel at St. Pius X parish, in the city’s Lake Vista subdivision, they weren’t looking to expand the 1963 church building, but rather to create a separate—and much smaller—space for quiet contemplation. So the team at local firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (EDR) set about designing a grace note: a 571-square-foot freestanding chapel and attached prayer garden that sit in the shadow of, but are not dwarfed by, the existing 13,850-square-foot church. In fact, the distinctive faceted geometry of the copper-roofed church influenced the new chapel’s sculpted form.

“How do we show appropriate respect for the architecture, but build something new that can carry its own weight?” EDR partner Mark Ripple, AIA, asked at the project’s inception. And especially when the mandate was for something so small and distinct: “A Eucharistic adoration chapel is a very specific Catholic design program,” Ripple says, meant for quiet reflection in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

The result is two volumes: An 8-foot-tall foyer that leads to a 18-foot-tall worship space in which “the tabernacle is unequivocally the focus,” project architect Christian Rodriguez, AIA, says. There’s not even a crucifix: The architects imply a cross form with canted white walls grazed by daylight from a side window.

The design fosters a sense of the intimate and eternal, with natural light entering from three sources—the tall, thin window to the left of the tabernacle, a clerestory above the worshipper’s heads, and a low window that gives a focused view to the outside. “You can see plants wiggle in the wind,” Rodriguez says. “It provides a bit of relief and a connection with nature.”

The overall palette of materials is equally simple, to balance the sense of the sacred with a tight budget. The exterior is predominantly cement plaster with copper details—the inverse of the main church’s exterior. Inside, the floor is an engineered stone, and gypsum board is used for the walls and ceilings. Walnut veneer is deployed in a screen between the entry and sanctuary, as a counter for reading materials, and to frame the tabernacle. What wasn’t part of the initial program is the prayer garden to the north of the chapel, which was added so that its absorbent planting beds could help with flood control—an important consideration in Lake Vista, which is built on land reclaimed from nearby Lake Ponchartrain.

“Good church architecture encourages you to put the secular behind,” Ripple says. EDR’s chapel manages to achieve this goal by deftly creating a small structure that evokes the eternal through a compelling interplay of form and light, focusing the attention of the parish community upon the ineffable.

Project Credits
Project: St. Pius Chapel and Prayer Garden, New Orleans
Client: Archdiocese of New Orleans
Architect: Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, New Orleans . Mark Ripple, AIA (principal); Christian Rodriguez, AIA (project architect); Robert Kleinpeter, Lynn Ostenson, Aseem Deshpande, AIA (project team)
Mechanical/Electrical Engineer: Mazzetti
Structural/Civil Engineer: Robert A. Bouchon, Consulting Engineer
Geotechncial Engineer: Gillen Engineering
General Contractor: Voelkel McWilliams Construction
Size: 571 square feet (chapel); 1,258 square feet (including prayer garden)
Cost: $458,000 (including site work)

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