Symbolism & the Sacred: Chapel of St Brigid
Set in bushland on the grounds of Mercy College in Perth’s northern suburb of Koondoola, the Chapel of St Brigid is the spiritual heart of the College community. Established in 1972 by the Sisters of Mercy, the college is founded on Catholic principles and tradition. Slavin Architects was commissioned to unite the four separate school entities into a single campus, resulting in a masterplan based on the triumvirate of administration, education and spirituality. In 2005, the final element - a new Chapel designed by Slavin Architects - was completed and became the visible marker of the college’s commitment to Catholicism, a declaration of faith to the wider community.
A dedicated space for prayer, worship, and contemplation, the Chapel is rich in religious symbolism. From the very foundations - the vestigial buttresses - in which the Cross of the Sisters of Mercy is embedded, to the ‘living water’ bridged-font and the recurrence of the blood-red of passion in the colour palette, every component of the Chapel was purposefully crafted as an expression of the faith that is now practiced within its walls.
On approach, a tent-like membrane stretches out in welcome, supported by a steel cross which is essential to the structure of the building, as it is to the structure of the Catholic Church. A reference to the often nomadic existence of the early Church, the tented entry provides protection from the elements, signalling a safe and peaceful space within.
“The building expresses a depth of understanding of liturgical and spiritual symbols based on research and dialogue.” - Jury, RAIA 2005
Full length glass panels line the edges of the Chapel, blurring the boundary between indoor and outdoor. Indeed, the sense is of the outer environment infiltrating the interior of the building - from the use of hoop pine plywood throughout the building, to the natural light streaming through transparent walls and details such the entryway mosaics. Designed and installed by local community members, the riverstone-based mosaics are stylised representations of local flora and fauna. The meeting point of creativity, natural resources and new technologies is the ultimate celebration of God’s creation, inspiring a joyous and worshipful ambience.
Crossing the jarrah bridge that connects the foyer to the nave, children reach out to touch the living waters flowing from the fonts over the mosaic-embedded walls on either side. Sourced from four sacred wells, these waters were blessed by Bishop Don Sproxton at the blessing and opening of the Chapel.
“That this is a truly egalitarian space is demonstrated by the obvious delight and animation that the children, staff and parents expressed in being in the space.” - Jury, RAIA 2005
Underfoot, rich red carpeting inspires reverence, a respectful acknowledgement of both the sacredness of the space and of the first Indigenous inhabitants of the area. Designed in the shape of cupped hands to signify the support and nurture the congregation may receive in this space, the nave features a gently sloping floor. The effect is that of a shallow amphitheatre which finds its focal point at the raised altar. Made from polished concrete, or ‘poor man’s marble’, and topped with a roughly sawn timber slab sourced from a fallen jarrah tree on the site, the altar conveys the humble status of Jesus the carpenter. As for the overarching geometry of the place, the altar follows the plan-form of a superellipse continuing the curves and soft edges throughout the Chapel.
A reredos of geometric hoop pine panels softens the visual impact of the altar, as well as improving the acoustics. The use of pine plywood extends to the curved ceiling, reflecting the look, feel and sound quality of the inside of an instrument - an immersive experience. Custom-designed furniture, including the Lectern and Presidential Chair, is constructed from the same pine ply as the ceiling and reredos, and is trimmed with fine jarrah, bringing the organic warmth of the natural environment into the seemingly small details.
The Chapel of St Brigid is now a focal point of the College with weekly mass, retreats and music.
Slavin Architects was recognised for excellence in Interior Design by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) in 2005, and with a special steel commendation awarded by the Institute of Engineers. View the full project gallery here.