Design For The Sky


Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse | Image: James Bradberry Architects

Editor’s Note: One of the greatest achievements of contemporary architecture is the way it can engender a sense of wonder. This is particularly important for sacred spaces, of course, a lesson not lost on the folks at the Chestnut Hill Quaker Meeting, as they sought to employ the sculptor James Turrell in designing a “skyspace” for their new meetinghouse. You can learn about that project, with insight from John Gallery, Preservation Alliance executive director and author of Sacred Sites of Center City (2007, Paul Dry Books) and Jordan Bastien, former director of the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York City, at DesignPhiladelphia event at the Arch Street Meetinghouse in Old City Thursday, October 11. For more information on the event, click HERE. I asked Jim Bradberry of James Bradberry Architects, the designer of the new meetinghouse, to give us some insight on the design.

Nathaniel Popkin: I always thought that the early Quaker buildings–meetinghouses and otherwise–in Philadelphia anticipated Modern design in the use of geometrical shapes, clear delineation of uses of rooms and spaces, simplicity of color and texture, and the use of natural light. Now, in reading about this project, I see that the Quaker building is also so nicely aligned with sustainability too–to make this a strong LEED building seems like a natural–is that how you saw it?
James Bradberry: I agree with your assessment of Quaker buildings, for sure. Not as severe as, say, Shaker architecture, but yes, a simplicity and honesty of material, space, and light. Which definitely fits with the tenets of Quakerism, and the lack of ritual and iconography as trappings of faith (unlike, say, Catholicism). And sustainability is truly an extension of that, for sure.

James Turrell Skyspace at Live Oaks Meeting, Houston, Texas, prototype for Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse | Photo: Florian Holzherr

NP: You are partnering with the highly acclaimed sculptural artist James Turrell, who is a Quaker. His skyspace installations seem to derive from the spiritual wonder he takes from the natural world–or the heavens. What’s your influence? What makes this a spiritual building? What makes any spiritual space different from other kinds of secular architecture?
JB: A spiritual building can be many things, depending on the religion. I used to teach architectural history and I absolutely love the evolution of the Christian church from Romanesque to Gothic to Renaissance to Baroque, buildings in which faith was made manifest in the form and shape and plan and heavenly light, etc. Although, just as wonderful would be a Buddhist or Hindu temple, for different reasons. So to me, the question is what should a 21st century Meetinghouse be? And it is the things from traditional Quaker architecture updated, as well as what you said about Turrell.

Rendering of James Turrell’s Skyspace at Live Oaks Meeting, Houston, texas, prototype for Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse | Photo: Florian Holzherr

NP: What makes the Skyspace not just a skylight?
This is in the design of the vaulted ceiling. If you look at the drawing (above), you’ll see the person standing there–or anywhere really. When he is looking up to the ceiling, he can’t conceive of the thickness of the roof, it’s disappeared with the creation of a knife’s edge just at the opening. That means it’s just you and the sky–and there’s no sense of a structural roof.

The approach to light is particularly interesting. Light has been used in ecclesiastical architecture forever, but often times in more dogmatic Christianity, it is heavenly light (e.g., light streaming down from above, be it from a dome, a clearstory, etc.) With Turrell, it is ambiguous and contemplative light, subtly changing minute by minute, day by day, and month by month throughout the year. And you would have to see one of his installations to understand the ‘trick’ he plays at dawn or dusk, when the hole in the ceiling as negative space suddenly becomes, or at least it seems, a positive force on the ceiling. It gives you the feeling of floating in a three-dimensional plane. The sun goes down, the sky gets darker and darker, and Turrell uses LED light to create a sense of ethereal light–it’s just you and the sky and that’s all there is. It’s the damnedest thing you ever saw. Suffice it to say that that mysterious transformation fits with Quakerism and the abstract notion of ‘inner light.’

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine.


  1. Proper credit for the photographs of Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston should be to Florian Holzherr, of Germany, who is the photographer and copyright owner of those images.

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