Refractions for Reflection: Illuminating a Prayer Chapel
Syska associate partner Robert Fagnant doesn’t have much free time. But he couldn’t resist the opportunity to participate in a fascinating pro-bono project – lighting design of the new Lyle & Grace Prescott Memorial Prayer Chapel at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.
EXTERNAL TEAM Carrier Johnson + CULTURE: Design Architect and Architect of Record Point Loma Nazarene University: Owner Bycor General Contractors: Contractor Rowan Electric: Electrical Contractor
SYSKA TEAM Robert Fagnant: Architectural Lighting Designer
PHOTOS Lawrence Anderson Photography
Robert was captivated when Gordon R. Carrier, FAIA, of Carrier Johnson + CULTURE, the project’s design architect, showed him a small-scale 3D model of the space. The actual structure contains only 550 square feet, but Robert noted its “great bones and great design.” He recalls: “I was happy to contribute our time to the project, knowing how creative we could be with the lighting.”
In developing the design, Robert took cues from the architecture, which promotes serenity and yet connotes the power of prayer. He decided to illuminate the chapel through the architect’s creation of frosted clerestories and vertical light wells. Natural daylight filters gently through a filigree of mixed woods that ascends to evoke Christ’s spirit and his crown of thorns. Daylight also penetrates through three personal prayer niches, each of which is equipped with a small, 1-inch LED spotlight to emphasize form and texture.
Additional lighting is low and soft to foster calm. And with the low levels comes high energy efficiency: The design yielded a lighting power density of less than 0.5 watts per square foot, which is 30% below code limits. Another benefit is minimal heat contribution from the lighting sources, which helps ensure comfort for visitors.
One of the project’s most notable features is hidden lighting fixtures that support the impression that the chapel itself is the source of light. Robert explains that hidden lighting is not uncommon, but that the chapel presented extra challenges. The main difficulty was the lack of cavity walls or ceilings. To circumvent this problem, Robert worked closely with the contractor to identify places that could house tiny linear strips within the concrete forms.
“I was happy to contribute our time to the project, knowing how creative we could be with the lighting.”
“Natural daylight filters gently through a filigree of mixed woods that ascends to evoke Christ’s spirit and his crown of thorns.”
“In the evening, small star-shaped pendants at various heights in the ceiling combine with the hidden fixtures to emulate a nighttime sky. ”
In the evening, small star-shaped pendants at various heights in the ceiling combine with the hidden fixtures to emulate a nighttime sky. An LED strip located in a niche in the clerestories intensifies the effect by changing from a bluish cast during the day to a warmer tone at night. The result is a shift in personality and language of the building during the evening hours. Visitors in the evening also encounter a glow from a continuous band of light at the foundation plinth, creating the illusion of the building floating. “The image is striking,” says Robert, “but it also inspires reflection and calm.”
Students, visitors, and the A/E/C industry have responded to the new chapel with enthusiasm. The project won six awards in 2020, including the Gold Nugget Grand Award from the Pacific Coast Builders Conference, the AIA Honor Award for Divine Details, the Orchid for Interior Architecture, the Loop Design Award, the Honor Award from Faith and Form Magazine, and an Honorable Mention in Architectural Design/Small Architecture by Architecture Masterprize.
Now that the project is complete, Robert still isn’t ready for rest or relaxation. He’s eager to tackle other challenges in lighting design. As he points out: “The project has opened our eyes to different techniques that Syska can apply in the future.”
Click here to see a video of the chapel’s opening and dedication.
“The project has opened our eyes to different techniques that Syska can apply in the future.”