Posted in projects
on October 1, 2016 9:17 am EDT
Case Study: A River Runs Beside It
A Palo Pinto, Texas, chapel provides a place for respite in God's country. See the image gallery.
Maurice Jennings + Walter Jennings Architects PLLC oversaw the design of Rio Roca Chapel. The design is reminiscent of E. Fay Jones’ famous Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Ark. / Launch gallery (in new window)
They say that early Spanish settlers called it Rio de los Brazos de Dios (the River of the Arms of God), and it’s easy to understand why. “Breathtaking” is another way to describe the Brazos River, the longest in this state. Or, one could succumb to the notion that some things are simply beyond words.
It is along the Brazos River that, back in 2006, the Richards family founded the Rio Roca Ranch in what is now Palo Pinto County, Texas. Spanning several thousand acres, the site and its surrounding areas boast their fair share of history, fact, fiction and legend: the famed—and ill-fated—Comanche war chief Peta Nocona is said to have crossed through here on his last raid on white settlers in the early 1860s. The Trail of the Iron Ponies, a series of statues that adorn a two-mile stretch leading up to the property, commemorates this battle, during which Nocona supposedly stole 600 horses.
The most recent history associated with the ranch is hardly as violent. In 2009, the Richards’ began construction of the Rio Roca Chapel, a 1,080-square-foot space overlooking the river to one side, and Schoolhouse Mountain on the other. Michael Taylor of English Heritage Homes of Texas Inc. in Dallas headed up construction, while Maurice Jennings + Walter Jennings Architects PLLC of Fayetteville, Ark., oversaw the design of the facility, which was to serve as a place of respite.Winding reflection
It’s not easy to miss elements of E. Fay Jones’ famed Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Ark., which, since its construction in 1980, has continually been recognized as one of the best designs in the country. Maurice Jennings, who was Jones’ partner for 25 years, was project architect for Thorncrown from 1978 to 1979. He explains that Thorncrown was inspired by Stoneflower, a cottage retreat on Eden Isle that Jones designed for landscape architects Bob Shaheen and Curt Goodfellow in 1965. “Eden Isle was at my home town of Heber Springs, Ark., and seeing Stoneflower emerge from the site inspired me to become an architect,” he says. In 1986, Jones and Jennings collaborated on Cooper Chapel in Bella Vista, Ark.; the firm has designed 14 chapels so far.
“As architects, we need to be open to other suggestions. Sometimes there’s a reason to do it the way we’ve drawn it, but sometimes people have good ideas that we need to assimilate.”
—Walter Jennings, Architect, Maurice Jennings + Walter Jennings Architects PLLC, Fayetteville, AR
One of the first tasks at hand was situating the chapel on the ranch, Walter Jennings recounts. “The fun part was driving around trying to figure out, over several thousand acres, where to put this building,” he says. “There were several wonderful spots, but the spot that we chose, overlooking the Brazos River, is really quite special.” The asymmetrical chapel sits on the edge of a mountain, with its form and glass guiding the visitor’s eye down to the water.
The sun also played a significant role in the site selection, as well as the siting of the chapel itself. “This is a location that takes advantage of the sunsets, which seem to go on forever,” Walter Jennings says. At the same time, an overhang on the building’s south façade serves the dual purpose of keeping the sun out of the chapel during hot summer months, while letting it in during the winter. Regardless of the season, there is no need for artificial light in the daytime.
Both Thorncrown and Rio Roca feature glass walls and gable roofs, and their inner verticality lend an aspiring feel to each space. Maurice Jennings explains that Rio Roca’s structural system is in pure tension, its delicate bars pulling the chapel together. “All forces are transferred through these bars and turnbuckles,” he says. “These elements cannot act in compression.”