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Seattle Church Gets A Bright, Modern Twist On Stained Glass Windows

With great panes, Olson Kundig Architects meld gothic stained glass and Le Corbusier-style architecture.

Sainte-Chapelle, the more petite Parisian structure in Notre Dame’s shadow, was built in 1248 as a house for King Louis IX to stash his collection of religious relics. The 50-foot-high stained glass windows and ornate stone sculptures allegedly cost half of his fortune.

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By contrast, the Gethsemane Church in downtown Seattle–which has for decades hosted dinner and movie nights for the city’s homeless, and provided services for single working mothers–didn’t have a king’s budget for its recent renovation. But Jim Olson, the lead architect on the project from Olson Kundig Architects, still saw a connection between the two chapels. When he visited Saint-Chapelle, he says, he realized “what that space does with the big bands of colored light coming through the glass is what I’d like to translate into in a modern setting.”


So Olson married the notion of grandiose, multicolored glass with a more Spartan design ethos–the same one Le Corbusier championed when he built his Convent of La Tourette monastery in Lyon, France. The right angles and vertical concrete fins that outfit Le Corbusier’s monastery show up in the design language at Gethsemane. Olson and his team arranged the glass in a seemingly random pattern that, from a five-block distance, forms the shape of a cross. Up close, it unifies the chapel and church buildings.

The church had a second, more macro, issue of integration. It was built almost a century ago and then rebuilt in the 1950s. Over the decades, the neighborhood around it has gentrified and changed quickly. The 70- and 80-year-old churchgoers are now surrounded by 20-somethings living in silver and steel condos.

Olson’s take still incorporates the Christian iconography and stained glass windows that speak to a more traditional community, but it’s modern and eye-grabbing enough to keep the church from fading into the background as chic restaurants and indie shops crop up. “Even though this building was tiny compared to all the ones around it, it would become important because it’s so different,” he says. “Openness to the outside and to the pedestrian experience was important.”

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About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.

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