Allegory Oratory: Tiny Chapel, Prodigious Message

Why the rise of the ‘tiny chapel’ may mean more for religion than meets the eye

There is, and always has been, an epidemic of aesthetics in religious architecture. Historically, this has manifested in resplendent and monumental buildings; grandeur represented in extraordinary scale, richness of colour, and delicacy of detail, personified in the wider media by icons such as the Duomo di Firenze. However in recent years a new aesthetic has found its place amongst the sacred and continues to grow in popularity; that of the so-called ‘tiny chapel’. These structures, sometimes no larger than five square metres (as in the case of Kieran Donnellan and MEDS’ Sliding Chapel), are almost the polar opposite of preceding typologies; barely furnished, materially stripped-back, and (as it says on the tin) pretty tiny. Though named as chapels, they are often described as ‘spaces for contemplation’ and are largely secular, which begs the question: are they even chapels at all? 

The face value answer is yes, tiny chapels are indeed chapels, in much the same way that a mountain goat is considered a goat; they fit the overarching description, and any sane person wouldn’t take the time to even ask the question, but there are differences that waive their synonymity. Arguably, they sit closer to the oratory than the traditional chapel, as smaller spaces much better suited to private solitary devotion; though simultaneously, the scale and privacy offered by these miniature chapels also renders them akin to the confessional, and provides a wonderful opportunity for a merging of many spaces at once. A conventional chapel, though largely a wonderful petri dish for sociality and the expression of unified desire, can also be an incredibly lonely place; sometimes the last thing we want in a time of need is to share our problems with a roomful of people. In the words of May Sarton, ‘Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self’; perhaps by embracing smaller scales, emotional accessibility to religious spaces of the new century could become far easier for intro- and extroverts alike.

And it is this turn towards the new era of religion that truly makes the idea of the tiny chapel so rousing. As Involved’s own Simeon Mihaylov has written, the world is becoming more and more secular. Now more than ever, traditional ideas about even the most basic of spiritual practises – prayer, mass, music – are being overturned (and rightly so); as movements are made to reform faith itself, should architects not follow suit to reform the spaces faith itself inhabits? When all is said and done, what is truly the reason that religious structures should still be designed to be high and mighty? Of course, any brief research or common sense will tell you that it is a yearning to be more closely connected to the divine, an architectural hand craned toward the sky. But in this modern world, these grand spaces have lost their meaning, or at least their meaning has been lost in translation. Enter the Sagrada Familia on any day of the week, and you will find that those in prayer are outnumbered by those taking selfies ten-to-one. Of course, these spaces are beautiful, and for good reason – but the aesthetic accessibility of large spaces in the twenty-first century has wiped awe from the board.

Architects, too, are far from safe from this phenomenon, though we occasionally like to think ourselves above those of a non-design persuasion. A recent trip to Helsinki with peers confirmed the fact; upon entering K2S’s Kamppi Chapel of Silence, the immediate reaction was not to sit and contemplate, nor to bow head in prayer; but to produce a sketchbook and start churning out drawings. No time was dedicated to feeling or experiencing; it had inherently become about how the space looked. And this is entirely unsurprising given the overwhelming documentation of minimalist churches and chapels across all design publications and social media alike; just as the industrial trend sweeps over residential design like a pendulum, so too do trends brush across religious architecture, ugly though the thought may seem. Ironically, places of religious value are the highest form of porn to architects, and when we are continuously exposed to the same photographs of apparently different chapels, it would be impossible to avoid desensitisation. They become no longer about paying tribute to a higher being, but seemingly about paying tribute to ‘good design’ – architecture for architecture’s sake. 

So how, then, could it be possible that the tiny chapel could solve this problem? The proof is in the pudding: the photographs themselves. Any digital article about such a building will show you largely the same thing; many external photographs of the structure, and one closeup of the internal materiality. The reason being, the photographer cannot move far back enough within such a small space to capture anything more than a snippet of the wall! It is a stroke of genius that I am sure could not have been intentional; though so many aspects of these oratories have been so purposefully designed – their selective views outwards, their minimalism, their size – I am certain that their un-photogenicness was a blissful, blissful accident. A chapel you cannot capture on film, a chapel you cannot share on social media, is a chapel that cannot entice tourists, that cannot induce hashtags. It brings the entire spatial concept crashing right back to its origins – a place you go to pray. 

I admit that my strong reaction to some of these ideas has surprised me. It would be an incredible lie by omission if I were not to admit to my agnosticism; but also to my hypocrisy. Of course, I have taken photographs in chapels. I have sat in a pew and had nothing run through my mind in that moment, other than what I would have for dinner that night. But there are some spaces that make it impossible not to even wonder about the possibility of something… bigger. A colossal, shimmering monolith, reaching into the sky, filled with so much light you couldn’t possibly avoid being a little breathless – sure. But a box the size of an airing cupboard, small enough to make you feel claustrophobic, putting nothing but charred timber between you and the rest of the world? Where your deepest shame, your most tempestuous thoughts, are shared by you and you alone? A tiny chapel. I’ll take a seat for one, please.