The Luce Chapel at Tunghai University was the first example of modernist architecture in Taiwan. Created by Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei and Taiwanese architect Chen Chikwan, it is considered to be one of the most distinctive buildings of 20th century architecture around the globe. In spite of the relatively small size of the chapel, the architects were able to apply common engineering techniques to render the structure earthquake-proof as well as wind- and heat-resistant. Another unusual feature is the curvature of the building’s exterior, which allows its walls to function as both pillars and rafters at the same time. The structure, interior space, and style are perfectly integrated. The chapel’s innovative design is unmatched in Taiwan.
Tunghai University is a well-known Christian school in Taichung. After the establishment of the university, the United Board for Christian Colleges in China (UBCCC) thought the school needed a venue for spiritual cultivation and Sunday services, so they decided to build a church building on campus. In 1963, Henry R. Luce (1868 – 1967), the founder of TIME and Life magazines, donated the funds needed as a way to honor his father, Reverend Henry W. Luce, and to spread the gospel. Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei and Taiwanese architect Chen Chikwan were commissioned to design the church. It was constructed in the center of the campus. At the time, when the trees on campus were not yet so tall, the cross on top of the church could be seen from anywhere inside the school, and the church thus became a symbol of the university. In 2014, the J. Paul Getty Trust, a non-profit cultural and philanthropic institution, decided to provide grants to support the preservation of 20th century modernist architectural works from around the globe. They selected ten iconic buildings that were most worthy of preservation, among which is the Luce Chapel in Tunghai University. The chapel thus began attracting the attention of the architectural industry.
1Tent-Like Conoid Structure
To allow more natural light to come in and to create a distinctive structure, the four curved walls stand almost independently of each other. These warped planes meet at the top to form a ridge line. The resulting tent-like structure creates a feeling of stability and more importantly, enhances the building’s resistance to strong winds and earthquakes. From the base to the peak of the ridge, the front façade forms a nearly equilateral triangle whose graceful curving lines are at their most stunning when viewed from within a forty-five degree angle of the front of the chapel. The front and the back of the chapel are covered in heat-absorbing glass panels. The dark tint of the glass creates the illusion of an architectural void. Since the geometry of the front and side façades differs, visitors can walk around the chapel and discover different aspects of the building’s beauty.
The design of the chapel is both traditional and innovative. The Taoist concept of “being arising from non-being, existence arising from nothingness” is fully expressed in the architecture of the chapel. The front of the chapel uses a pillar-less, rafter-less, and wall-less design which gradually morphs into a design at back of the chapel in which pillars, rafters, and walls exist. The exterior walls of the chapel exemplify the ultimate state of being pillar, rafter, and wall all at once. The roof ridge of the chapel is topped by a skylight consisting of a row of glass panels which effectively create a one-line sky (the natural phenomenon of a stripe of sky visible between narrow cracks of boulders or rocks; considered to be an extremely rare and beautiful view). With the cosmos visible above and light filtering in through the side windows, the chapel is imbued with an ethereal and mysterious atmosphere.
The upward-tapering design of the chapel creates a chimney effect. Hot air inside the building rises and escapes through the ventilation windows along the ridge of the roof. This feature helps regulate the temperature in the chapel.
4An Earthquake, Wind, and Heat Resistant Design
The four curved walls, front and back glass facades, and the skylight panels are all joined with channel bars and connected with expansion joints to enable the chapel to stretch or shrink and help it endure earthquakes, typhoons, and large temperature fluctuations. The curved surfaces are also effective in reducing wind stress.
5Glazed Diamond-Shaped Tiles
The exterior of Luce Chapel is covered with glazed, diamond-shaped tiles which provide protection, waterproofing, and stain prevention. They also enhance the aesthetics of the building. Diamond tiles were chosen because they work best on curved surfaces, and the color yellow was selected as the color traditionally used for religious buildings in Chinese architecture. The color also stands out amidst the surrounding acacia trees and increases the solemnity of the chapel.
Visitors are requested to park their vehicles off campus and enter the school on foot. Three church services are conducted every Sunday morning, usually with over six hundred people attending. Visitors wishing to attend services will need to make advance reservations by phone (04-23590226 ext. 513 or 514).