Preservation Magazine, Winter 2021

Skylit Contemplation at Houston's Restored Rothko Chapel

Interior of Rothko Chapel

photo by: Elizabeth Felicella

A new skylight allows Mark Rothko's 14 panels at the Rothko Chapel to be seen the way the artist had imagined.

Art lovers come from all over the world to visit the Rothko Chapel in Houston. But until now, they haven’t been able to see the building’s 14 Mark Rothko paintings in their best light. The first phase of the chapel’s restoration and campus expansion, completed in September of 2020, aimed to fix that problem, while also conserving and updating the 1971 structure. The site will celebrate this work—along with its renewed landscape design by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects and its 50th anniversary—this February.

Patrons John and Dominique de Menil asked Rothko to create the nondenominational chapel during the 1960s. The artist initially worked with architect Philip Johnson on the building’s design, but the two ended up parting ways. Rothko made each dark-hued, monumental painting panel specifically for the space, envisioning an immersive experience beneath a large skylight.

The skylight never worked exactly as Rothko had hoped; it brought in too much of the strong Texas sun, and mitigation efforts over the years weren’t entirely successful. As part of the restoration, architects Adam Yarinsky and Stephen Cassell of New York firm Architecture Research Office (ARO) teamed with lighting designer George Sexton Associates (GSA) to design a new skylight that diffuses the daylight with a perforated scrim.

ARO also repaired cracks within the masonry walls, replaced cracked bricks on interior corners, worked with GSA to reconfigure the lighting scheme, and added retractable floodgates. The firm relocated items such as mechanical equipment, nonhistoric glass partitions, and a front desk to a new, separate building, the Suzanne Deal Booth Welcome House—essentially removing anything from the chapel that would distract from the art. “Rothko really understood the experience with the panels themselves and that nothing should get in the way of that,” says Cassell.

Meghan Drueding is the managing editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee table books about architecture and design.

@mdrueding

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