Arts and Entertainment

Addressing climate change, promoting sustainability through design

Stuckeman School alumna returns to her roots to help design a ‘Living Chapel’ for the Vatican and the United Nations

An aerial view of the Living Chapel as it stands assembled in the Rome Botanical Garden.  Credit: Consuelo FabrianiAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After nearly 18 months of planning, several production hurdles and a worldwide pandemic that shut down international travel, not to mention all of Italy, architect and 2007 Penn State alumna Gillean Denny and a group of students, faculty and research assistants in the Stuckeman School are celebrating the virtual unveiling of a “Living Chapel” they designed to promote environmental consciousness as part of Global Catholic Climate Movement activities in Rome from May 16-24 and United Nations World Environment Day on June 5.

Musician Julian Revie, Denny’s longtime friend and associate director of music at the Center for Music and Liturgy of Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University, was the catalyst for the project. Inspired by the U.N.’s 2030 sustainable development agenda and “Laudato Si” — the 2015 papal encyclical on climate change — Revie worked diligently with Vatican officials to get the plans for the chapel approved and the structure installed.

Julian Revie, associate director of music at the Center for Music and Liturgy of Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University and the catalyst for the Living Chapel Project. Credit: Stephanie Swindle Thomas / Penn StateCreative Commons

“The chapel is an instrument to inspire a sense of serenity and oneness with nature in those who pass through it,” explained Revie, who was the recipient of the Vatican’s 2016 Francesco Siciliani prize for a sacred music composition.

The purpose of the chapel is “to encourage worldwide acts of ecological restoration with an emphasis on tree planting in support of the U.N.’s Trillion Tree Campaign,” said Denny, who earned a bachelor of architecture from the Stuckeman School.

The structure, which features green walls that are adorned with living plants and an elaborate chime wall featuring metal embellishments, will officially be introduced via streaming video on June 5 in the Rome Botanical Garden as part of events organized by the Italian Alliance for Sustainable Development in celebration of the U.N.’s World Environment Day.

The chapel will eventually be on display at the Vatican, where it will become the second structure in Vatican City to be designed by an American architect. The first was the Chapel of the Holy Spirit by architect Louis Astorino, also a Penn State architecture alumnus.

From the Vatican, the Living Chapel will move to its permanent home in Assisi, Italy, as a feature point of a new Saint Francis pilgrimage trail that is being unveiled this spring.

Penn State team members installing the final automobile-part panels to the chime wall prior to shipping the chapel to Rome in early February 2020. Credit: James Kalsbeek / Penn StateCreative Commons

The massive structure, which measures 45 feet long by 30 feet wide with walls that range from 10 to 15 feet high, was built out of aluminum and recycled and repurposed materials on the University Park campus during the latter part of the fall 2019 semester and the early weeks of the spring 2020 semester. It was then shipped to Rome, where it was put into storage while travel restrictions were enacted and the country went into lockdown. At that point, Revie and Denny reevaluated their plans from their respective homes in New Haven, Connecticut, and Toronto, Canada.

But how did such an elaborate project for the Vatican and the U.N. come about in the first place? 

The friendship and the idea

Revie and Denny met while they were both attending graduate school at the University of Cambridge. The friends became housemates during their time in the U.K., with Revie introducing Denny to her now-husband, and they would often discuss the possibility of collaborating.

After graduating with a master of philosophy and doctorate from Cambridge, Denny became an educator and freelance designer for several years before reducing her professional commitments to start a family. Revie, meanwhile, composed two papal masses and served as a composer and professional organist in Los Angeles before moving on to Yale.

Julian Revie, research assistant Becca Newburg and Gillean Denny go over elevation designs for the living wall plants and decorative metal birds in the Laundry Building on campus in December 2019. Credit: James Kalsbeek / Penn StateCreative Commons

Revie had the initial idea of creating a chapel that could be designed to play a musical piece he would compose while furthering the conversation on climate change in time for the fifth anniversary of the pope’s Laudato Si. A member of the Catholic church, Revie also wanted to pay homage to St. Francis of Assisi, who is known in the faith for his love of nature.

After much discussion with members of the Vatican and theologians worldwide, Revie was frustrated by the lack of a single design vision for the chapel, which is when the idea of collaborating with Denny reemerged. As a fellow Catholic with a professional background in sustainable design, urban agriculture and theatre production, Denny seemed ideal to help solidify the chapel vision.

They decided to begin precisely as St. Francis did. “It is said that when Francis received a message from God to ‘go build a church,’ he took the directive literally and built a prayer chapel,” explained Revie. “We wanted to reimagine that structure.”

The church built by St. Francis — Porziuncola — still stands in Assisi and resides within the larger Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, which was built to accommodate the visitors that come to pay homage to the saint. The site has since been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A collage of early sketches of the Living Chapel.  Credit: Gillean Denny and Becca NewburgAll Rights Reserved.

The vision for the Living Chapel took on a life of its own, and the scope was immense. The pair knew they needed help to pull it off.

“I was really intrigued by the idea [of the chapel], but I thought Julian was completely insane for wanting to have something of this scale finished by early 2020,” said Denny. “Then as we discussed it more and started fleshing out ideas, the less crazy it seemed and the more excited I got. There was a moment that I knew I wanted to be a part of this project, but I also knew that I could not design and build what we had in mind by myself.”

By then it was the spring of 2019 and Denny decided to seek assistance from the place that fueled her passion for design-build projects and Italian architecture.

A tradition of design-build

The Department of Architecture in the Stuckeman School at Penn State has a rich tradition of design-build curricula, beginning in the first year of the five-year professional bachelor of architecture program. Students learn the importance of not only designing a structure, but the physical process of putting together their design projects by hand, using real building materials. Traditionally, students in the fourth year of the program are required to study for a semester in Rome at the Pantheon Institute, where they experience firsthand the historic and contemporary architecture, landscape architecture and urbanism of the city.

James Kalsbeek, an associate professor in the department since 1990, specializes in leading design-build projects with students in both the first-year studio and a more advanced seminar where students work exclusively with discarded and reclaimed building materials. He also has been involved with the Rome program since its inception in 1991 and led the program in fall 2005 when Denny studied in Rome. Kalsbeek’s familiarity with design-build projects and Rome itself put him at the top of Denny’s list of people she wanted involved in the chapel project.

Gillean Denny meets with Becca Newburg, Kacie Ward, Elizabeth Andrzejewski and Elizabeth Rothrock to discuss design plans during September 2019. Credit: James Kalsbeek / Penn StateCreative Commons

“I was thrilled when Gill called and explained what she was up to,” said Kalsbeek. “It was a huge undertaking, sure, but it was something I knew she was quite capable of doing because she had done it here as a student. Maybe not to the same scale, but it became sort of a running joke that she was an expert at designing and building structures that were made to end up somewhere else.”

Denny did her fair share of designing installations around campus during her time as an undergraduate, and more specifically, she had experience building green structures. Denny was the lead designer for the Penn State team that conceptualized the MorningStar solar home during her fourth year of studies. That structure was built on campus and shipped to Washington, D.C., for the 2007 Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. It was then on display in several locations before returning to its home on the University Park campus.

“Getting that hands-on experience — actually getting in there and touching the materials you are working with and seeing how they respond to each other and the elements — was something I got away from in my career with a family, so it was really exciting to get back out from behind a desk,” said Denny.

The structural frame

Denny and Revie presented their design ideas to Kalsbeek during the summer of 2019 with the understanding that this was a large-scale green project. It would need to be fabricated and assembled in a modular fashion at Penn State, then taken apart and shipped to Italy where it would be reassembled and covered with tree and plant saplings by Italian botanists at the Rome Botanical Garden.

Kalsbeek located a workspace large enough for their needs  — the Laundry Building on campus — and assembled a “dream team” of students and researchers with expertise in building foundations, methods of assembly, fabrication processes, green structures and materials research that could work together to build the traveling, green, artistic, musical structure Revie and Denny envisioned.

That core team included architecture doctoral student Elizabeth Andrzejewski, graduate students Elizabeth Rothrock and Kacie Ward, and research assistants Becca Newburg, Garrett Socling and Dani Spewak, an alumna of the School of Visual Arts.

Plans for the Living Chapel are pinned up in the Laundry Building behind an early model that the Penn State team assembled. Credit: Stephanie Swindle Thomas / Penn StateCreative Commons

“I honestly didn’t think the project would come together given how short the timeframe was for all of the work that needed to get done, but I wanted to help,” said Andrzejewski, a skilled welder whose master’s thesis at Penn State was on jointing systems for prefabricated architecture, and whose doctoral research focuses on the interaction of materials and processes. “It seemed impossible, but given the significance, of course I wanted to do what I could to see it through."

First up was tackling the chapel’s structural frame, which is where the team encountered one of its first production challenges.

“It was obvious right from the start that while Lizz (Andrzejewski) is an amazing welder, we only have one of her and we just knew that we didn’t have the resources here that we needed to fabricate a structure of this size,” said Ward. “We had to look elsewhere to get help.”

That “elsewhere” ended up being 60 miles away at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, which is known for its welding and metal fabrication programs.

Gillean Denny met with Pennsylvania College of Technology faculty members, including James N. Colton II (at center), in December 2019 to go over the chapel’s framework in the institution’s newly expanded and enhanced welding lab. Credit: James Kalsbeek / Penn StateCreative Commons

Kalsbeek and Denny met with Penn College officials, including James N. Colton II, co-department head of welding and metal fabrication.

“Gillean came to our campus to meet with the team of faculty and students we assembled in September [2019] and we were asked if we could build the four walls for the chapel here,” said Colton. “We were talking about the materials we could use and decided that in order to keep the structure from getting too heavy, using aluminum was our best bet.”

In total, 4,956 feet of aluminum was used to construct the walls, which is about 16 football fields in length, and 3,514 combined hours were spent by the Penn College team on the project.

The work by the Penn College team was absolutely essential in getting the structural framework of the chapel built, said Denny.

“They literally were working miracles on that campus through Christmas break and into the new year,” she said. “But no way, no how, did the chapel get built without them. Period. They were amazing. Jim [Colton] and I were in constant contact every day, double-checking details as they worked and making changes as necessary.”

The entire structural frame of the chapel arranged and assembled for the first time in the Laundry Building prior to shipping to Rome.  Credit: James Kalsbeek / Penn StateCreative Commons

With the internal skeleton of the chapel completed and shipped to University Park in late January 2020, the Stuckeman School team got to work cladding the walls of the massive structure.

Building a musical, green chapel

Revie and Denny wanted to incorporate recycled and reusable materials into the chapel, so they started reaching out to friends and sharing details of their project in order to drum-up interest.

“One of my old Penn State friends has a connection we thought could help, and long story short, that’s how we ended up getting more than 1,500 pounds of donated parts from two automotive metal stamping plants,” said Denny.