STRUCTURES : Inspired Spire : Cal Lutheran’s new Samuelson Chapel is attuned more to the terrain than to other campus buildings.


The first thing you notice about the new Samuelson Chapel at Cal Lutheran, rightly, is the spire. An apex of an asymmetrical building, the spire climbs 75 feet upward from the bronze roof and houses a crucifix towering over the other buildings on the campus. The closer you get, the more you recognize the chapel’s unusual, striking personality.

Part of a huge facade fronting the chapel, the spire looks like the mast of a strange ship designed by a Neo-Cubist.

You think also of Le Corbusier’s famous chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, the rounded sweeping gestures of which look something like a nun’s habit and defy rational, rectangular architectural thinking. Of that landmark of religious architecture, resident Dominican Father Regamey once said that the chapel was “soft and hard at the same time like the Gospels. . . . It shows a way back to the truth and clearness of Christianity.”


Your own particular response will depend upon your religious leaning. Directly below the Samuelson Chapel spire is a small, 24-hour meditation chapel, in which wooden plaques cite biblical references, for example, “how dear to me is Your dwelling.” Words of wisdom in more than just a religious context.

Dedicated April 13, the chapel is the fruition of a longstanding dream at the university, which began raising funds for it in 1984.

Prior to the chapel’s construction, church services were held in various spots around the campus, including the gym. As campus Pastor Mark Knutsen says: “This is the first time we’ve had a home.” And it’s more than just a functional home.

From an architectural standpoint, the chapel is one of the more intriguing and unorthodox additions to the county’s structurescape. Designed by the Pasadena firm of Inslee, Senefield & Puchlik, the 1,300-square-foot, 600-seat chapel is a pleasing spatial puzzle. Lutheran churches, dating back to European origins, were often considered to have an architectural sense of adventure. Here’s local proof.

Generally, sweeping irregularity of form governs the chapel inside and out. Right angles are avoided, and the hillside terrain is more of a role model than is any campus building. Set off in a distant corner of the campus, it contrasts sharply with the campus’s more predictable geometries of rectangles and circles.

Certain geometrical elements counteract the structure’s more free-flowing design. A perfectly cylindrical turret set behind the spire, which houses a spiral staircase leading to the balcony inside, is the only strictly geometrical form in an otherwise amorphous structure. On the exterior, lines drawn in the aggregate wall surfaces create a grid pattern of five-foot squares on otherwise irregularly shaped walls.


Inside the chapel, the odd angles and asymmetrical volumes of the design create a pleasantly disorienting spatial illusion. Getting a directional bearing becomes a trick and, in a positive sense, you get lost in the space.

At the bottom of all this is the notion of paying heed to the twin functions of a church. A chapel should be both a solidly built refuge from the world--a mighty fortress, to quote Martin Luther--and it must serve a more poetic purpose as a citadel of meditation and spiritualism.

Vague floral imagery marks the stained-glass work of Mark Gulsrud, a ’72 graduate of the university. As Knutsen, commenting on the window work, said: “I’m particularly pleased that he included enough (clear) space in the windows so that you could see through to the outside--which isn’t often the case with stained glass. When you’re in the sanctuary, you still interact with the world instead of shutting yourself out and feeling womb-like.”

Another important addition to the chapel is the custom-built organ by renowned Louisville, Ky., organ builders Steiner-Reck. Once the installation has been completed, this instrument will be the only such organ on the West Coast.

Last week, Gottfried Reck was busy in the chapel form-fitting pipes and finishing the dramatic organ display. While some of his work naturally entails installing organs in existing churches, Reck says that “more and more, I get called ahead of time,” giving him the opportunity to consult with the architect.

Set into a ceiling-high frame of lightly stained white oak, the organ has more than 2,500 pipes of copper, brass, tin and zinc, all arranged in a colorful array. “I like to play with color,” Reck said. “That’s one of my trademarks.” Pipes called “horizontal trumpets,” more common in Spain than the United States, jut from the mostly vertical design. Reck notes that, sonically, “they have quite a lot of punch.”


At present, the chapel is on vacation, along with the student body. While it is designated primarily for student purposes, it is open to the public. The chapel will also be the site of concerts, lectures and certain public events.

The first full-scale church service takes place Sept. 1, with the organ in operation and all the elements in place--the true test of the chapel’s success.

For now, the Samuelson Chapel is a source of aesthetic inspiration to the eye--and the mind.