Philip Johnson's Peace Chapel in Dallas Opens

Peace Prize!
The new Philip Johnson-designed Interfaith Peace Chapel in Dallas pushes the boundaries of engineering, design, and faith.

Text by Rebecca Sherman
Photos Courtesy of the Cathedral of Hope

Eleven years ago when architect Philip Johnson conceived the design for Dallas' Interfaith Peace Chapel, the technology to build it didn't exist. The money wasn't there either. Years would pass before the computer programs needed to model Johnson's progressive design were developed, and in a leap of faith, fundraising continued for the sanctuary's $3.8 million price tag.

When the chapel finally opened earlier in this month on the Cathedral of Hope's grounds on Cedar Springs Road in Dallas, it was hailed as one of Johnson's most creative, if not confounding achievements.

"The geometry of the building has been very challenging," says Gary Cunningham, principal of Cunningham Architects, hired in 1999 to help bring the chapel to life. Johnson, a Pritzker Prize-winning architect best known for his Glass House in New Canaan, CT, and the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, died in 2005 at 98. Cunningham has continued to work closely with Johnson's business partner, Alan Ritchie.

"When Philip dreamed up the chapel in 1995, the technology wasn't there yet to build it," says Cunningham. "Philip literally drew it with his hands at first, and John Manley, who worked with him from day one, sculpted a model from the drawings, giving birth to the shape."

A feat of engineering, the chapel's undulating walls and ceiling warp and bend back onto themselves, eliminating all right angles and parallel lines. "The generation of computer programs we had until a few years ago could not have handled the complexity of this design," says Cunningham, who hired international engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti to carry out the building's intricate structural steel frame. The walls are defined and cut with the aid of computers.

An inch of concrete stucco sheathes the frame, and six inches of concrete insulate the roof, helping to keep the sanctuary quiet despite its proximity to Love Field. Its inside walls are sheetrock covered in a thin layer of tinted clay from Arizona, similar in look to Italian plaster but greener. The special clay mix, developed by Cunningham Architects, "actually improves the air quality in the room. When dust hits the walls, ions attach to them and make them fall flat to the ground," explains Cunningham. Johnson specified simple, common materials that wouldn't detract from the serenity of the space, including ground, polished concrete on the floors, walnut doors, glass, and LED lights. A single skylight illuminates the area of worship, and its electricity comes from wind generated power which the church purchases.

"It's been a tough job. Tough to keep it in budget, tough to get it built," says Cunningham. "A lot of people have gone beyond expectations, like the glass guys trying to deal with funny shaped pieces of glass you can't even draw, and the (plasterers) trying their best to do perfectly shaped walls even though it seems impossible."

The Cathedral of Hope, a congregation of the Church of Christ, has a predominantly gay and lesbian membership led by Rev. Jo Hudson, its rector and senior pastor. The chapel is designed to be open to all faiths. "This is still Texas, and there are people out there who have issues with homosexuality," says Cunningham. "But across the board, it's never been an issue with the building of this church. A lot of people came together to make it happen."

Philip Johnson, who was open about his own homosexuality, would have been proud of the building he called his greatest achievement. In one of his last interviews before his death, Johnson said, "This is a building I've waited all my life to build. It will be my memorial."

My article about the Interfaith Peace Chapel also appears in the current issue of Modern Luxury, turn to page 64.

Watch one of Philip Johnson's final interviews, as he talks about the Peace Chapel: