Form and Function in the Prayer Chapel Renovation
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Coming back from summer break, many students were surprised to find that the Prayer Chapel on campus had undergone a significant remodel—the side ledges taken out, the carpet replaced with stone tile, and the pews removed and replaced with folding chairs. As an aesthetic entity, the space had fundamentally transformed. But beyond that, the changed form meant the function of the space had fundamentally changed as well. Though great care was obviously put into the renovation of the Chapel, the hundreds of comments on Westmont’s Instagram—rallying around the hashtag #bringbackthepews—show that many students and alumni feel that something significant about the chapel has become lost in its new modernity.
Much of modernist architecture operates on the principle that form follows function; to put it another way, that a space should be architecturally designed for its purpose, rather than for visual beauty. The Prayer Chapel’s new form undeniably has functional benefits. The removal of the side ledges means the space is bigger. With the old carpet removed, the Chapel smells much better, and the acoustics are more conducive to both musical rehearsal and private worship. The moveable folding chairs allow the topography of the space to shift according to the needs of whoever uses it. So what are some students and alumni upset about?
Perhaps it is that the change in the architectural form of the chapel is also essentially a change to its function on campus. In the Prayer Chapel’s old form and architectural style, it had only a few functions; it served as a place for private or corporate prayer and worship, a peaceful spot to contemplate or meditate, or an occasional home for Vespers. It was a quiet, private, and traditional space that aesthetically reflected Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, and other more high-church or liturgical streams of Christianity. As third-year senior Cecilia Bratton said, “As a Catholic student, the Prayer Chapel was the place on campus where I felt my religious traditions were given an embodied space…With this renovation, I feel like the one place on campus that did embrace these traditions is now gone.”
The new modernity and adaptability of the Prayer Chapel after its renovation open the space up to new functions—as a meeting space or rehearsal space. On Instagram, Westmont’s account commented that the renovation “offers greater flexibility and capacity to meet the needs of more students, faculty and staff involved in activities such as prayer groups, bible study sessions, and rehearsals for small music ensembles.” However, with the gains in flexibility and capacity come losses in tradition and aesthetics. The shifts in architectural form raise complex questions about what the Prayer Chapel is for, and whether it’s better to have a modern, mutable chapel, or a fixed, liturgical one. Should form follow function, even in religious spaces, or should spiritual places reflect the beauty of worship in their architecture? Are gains in function always connected to losses in form? As the Prayer Chapel remodel shows, architecture is more than just the way a building looks—it actively shapes a place’s function and meaning.