John Pawson has stacked up 144 tree trunks to create a space of rest and contemplation on a cycle route in southwest Germany. Set on a hillside on the very cusp of the forest, with sweeping views across the Swabian landscape and a clear sight line to the church tower of the village of Unterliezheim, the intention is that people encounter the wooden chapel as a found object, rather than as a conventional work of architecture.
The sacred space, spectacular in its simplicity, was designed by London architect John Pawson. He was commissioned by the Siegfried and Elfriede Denzel Foundation to come up with a pavilion that will serve as a rest stop. This chapel is of “incredible complexity and technical difficulty,” said architecture professor Winfried Nerdinger at the inauguration. Nothing can be added here and nothing taken away. Pawson’s maxim is loud: only in an empty space can the eye capture the fullness.
Light is drawn into the interior from slender, high-level openings that run along the two longs sides of the structure like clerestory windows. There is also a simple cross carved out of one of the end walls and infilled with coloured glass.
“Openings cut into the envelope express the thickness of the wood, while the narrow entry deliberately recreates the sense of physical proximity encountered as one moves through the dense woods,” said Pawson’s studio.
The purposefully narrow entry maintains the sense of physical proximity encountered as one moves through the dense woods, adding visceral and visual theatre to the exhilarating experience of passing into an attenuated space over seven metres high and nearly nine meters long.
The dimness of the environment helps focus attention on the two other sources of light at the far end of the chapel: on the elevated cruciform opening and the structure’s single window. A slender bench offers an invitation to pause – for a moment of inward reflection and also to contemplate the rich but rigorously restrained interior world of the chapel, the outward view it frames across the landscape and the sustained counterpoint of compression and expansion that lies at the heart of this architectural composition.
The chapel’s Douglas fir logs were carefully sourced and collected by wooden flooring company Dinesen, who worked closely with six local forest owners. Pawson collaborated with Dinesen to explore the material’s qualities and characteristics. The Douglas fir lends the interior a warm and tactile quality, while the chapel’s robust and raw external appearance will continue to evolve and weather over time, becoming part of the forest it inhabits.
With a brief to primarily use wood for construction, Pawson’s design is based around the idea of keeping the material close to its natural state. The trunks were cut down into chunky rectilinear beams and stacked up, so as to look like “a pile of logs stacked up to dry”.
“The architecture is framed as the simplest of gestures,’ explains Pawson. “From certain perspectives its mass appears as a pile of logs stacked up to dry; from others the considered placement of the elements on a concrete plinth creates a more formal impression of a piece of sculpture emerging from the forest.”