September 1, 2008
Called Home to Help
A Brooklyn architect is recruited to design a chapel for his hometown in the Philippines.
Growing up in the Philippines, Carlos Arnaiz volunteered with the Chosen Children Village Foundation, a nonprofit that works with kids with disabilities—but he never dreamed he would eventually be called on to design their chapel. “I helped out on a few Sundays, cooking meals and playing with the kids,” says Arnaiz, now an associate partner at Stan Allen Architect, based in Brooklyn. “When they heard I had become an architect, they said, ‘Hey, do you guys want to do this chapel?’”
The project, located in the town of Silang, had many appeals for the firm—a good cause, a beautiful site, an interesting program—as well as numerous constraints. The building would be located in a major seismic zone, the design services would have to be donated, and the total budget for construction was only about $250,000. But, as with much good architecture, those restrictions eventually led to a breathtaking, primal building.
The 2,584-square-foot structure, which is built almost exclusively from concrete (except for a few steel beams), is largely open to the outdoors, taking advantage of the region’s temperate climate. “It’s really more of a pavilion than a building,” Stan Allen says. “There’s no HVAC system, there’s no glass. It’s not separated from the environment, and the wind blows right through. It was an opportunity to make a very elemental piece of architecture—it’s just about the space, the structure, and the light.”
To create a robust shell, the architects designed walls that are folded in a gentle zigzag. “A straight wall is liable to tip over, but if you cant it like we did, it’s intrinsically stable,” says Allen, who notes that the firm worked closely with a local structural engineer, Melquiades Castillo Jr. (who also volunteered his services), throughout the design process. The perimeter walls are further characterized by vertical concrete fingers, which pull away from each other at points, making tall openings. For added integrity, they also form two horizontal bands that wrap continuously around the entire structure, hugging it in an unshakable embrace.
Inside, the arrangement of the fingers creates light slots in the walls, which were painted blue and red inside and glow with color on sunny days. The broken-stone floor, typical for the region, flows seamlessly between street and chapel to provide easy access for the children. Thirteen-foot-high doors made from slats of tanguile (a local wood) mark the entrance. Wanting to keep the interior open and airy, the firm also designed wooden chairs and small benches rather than traditional pews—furniture for which it’s still trying to find the funding to build. The chapel opened in June, and the congregation has been using plastic garden chairs in the interim. Despite such funding-related hiccups, “It’s been very satisfying,” Allen says. “It feels good contributing to this organization.”