David Adjaye’s reflections on the MIT Chapel are a parting gift from the renowned architect who contributed to the arts on campus this year as part of his Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts residency. Adjaye called the chapel, designed by Eero Saarinen in 1955, a signifier of the campus: “If the campus is a sentence, then the chapel is the full stop that makes you pause.”
In the video, Adjaye describes his impression of the chapel, which he first encountered in the 1990s. “During my master’s program I became very interested in working on a faith-based space,” he says. “I looked at lots of examples and was particularly struck by this little chapel at MIT. I was struck because it proposed this section [viewed as vertical slice through the building] that I had never seen before. And I became fascinated by that—why you would spend so much energy and effort doing something that was contrary to the way most people would make a building? When I came to the building, it revealed its purpose very clearly. When you are here with the light and the water, it’s a very powerful place….It all comes alive.”
The building uses the elements to affect the emotions directly, he says. “Saarinen used the natural elements to evoke a more powerful feeling in the building by using water and by making a building that has a relationship to the story, the notion of a Christian life as an arc or a vessel. In a way, we are sitting in a vessel…on a water body. He makes that analogy really, really close.” Adjaye also examines the contrast between the outside—which feels closed from the world—and the intimate inside of the building that you reach by crossing a bridge. “The inner life of the building is extremely rich…inspiring.”
Adjaye, who was born in Tanzania and now has offices in London and Accra, Ghana, designed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. and the Sugar Hill housing and museum project in Harlem, New York, among other notable projects.
The McDermott award, established in 1974 by Texas Instruments founder and MIT Corporation member Eugene McDermott, recognizes rising talents from many creative fields with a $100,000 award and campus residency. The 2018 recipient will be announced in the fall. Meanwhile, check out other artists visting on campus.