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The Chapel and Convent of the Capuchinas Sacramentarias (Tlalpan, Mexico) | Media and Architecture 2012

The Chapel and Convent of the Capuchinas Sacramentarias (Tlalpan, Mexico)

“Most high, all-powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To you, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve him with great humility.”

– Saint Francis of Assisi

Mexican modernist architect Luis Barragán built an entire Chapel in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi’s Laudes Creaturarum (Praise of the Creatures). In his theology, Saint Francis referred to animals as “brothers and sisters to Mankind” and was known for rejecting sensuous comforts and material accumulations. Profoundly inspired by that, Barragán, a devout Franciscan who said his architecture was autobiographical, surrounded himself with hardly any effects. He could only maintain his spirit undistracted by living between absolute material detachment and a profound love for objects that served a purpose. [1] He referred to those things as the “sister things.”

I’m very interested in religious architecture and took advantage of a quick trip home to visit the Chapel and Convent of the Capuchinas Sacramentarias. The information on the website was limited and only offered a phone number to schedule visits and an address (a preamble?) So without further ado I called, made an appointment and on a crisp Monday morning began my architectural pilgrimage to the historic area of Tlalpan in Mexico City. As soon as I got to the house I noticed that it had a very solemn and discrete façade and that its street-facing walls and doors had no signs of any kind. It camouflaged very well into the aesthetics of an otherwise residential block. Passersby would probably never be able to tell just by walking down the street that there’s a Convent in there. But #43 of Calle Hidalgo holds a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its belly and one of Luis Barragán’s masterpieces.

A very nice nun received me at the door at 10 am sharp. There was no one else around except for a gardener. A strong sense of serenity came over me the second I walked in from the street. I immediately forgot that I was in one of the busiest neighborhoods of one of the biggest cities in the world. I entered a quiet vestibule and crossed into a square courtyard, with very high white walls and a raised pool of flowing water. I was asked to wait in the patio. Tiny flowers floated on the pool and I noticed an immense white cross behind me, entrenched into the main patio wall. These two elements instantly placed me amid an interesting dichotomy of (my) human scale: the overflowing fountain water was making me feel “big” but the cross behind me made me feel very “little”. I looked up and looked down more than once, as if to the heavens and back to the ground. A lemon-colored grid divider reflected on the water from the opposite side of the pool. The morning light made it all feel very tranquil. The moistness in the air, transmitted in part by the building’s coarse materials, was soothing and preparing me for what was yet to come. The Capuchinas are an Observant (meditative) Franciscan order and Barragán did an extraordinary job in creating and *containing* a numinous ambience for them all throughout.

I had been quickly advised that I could only take photos in the outside areas of the Chapel but that I could otherwise take notes and ask as many questions as I wanted (phew!) Even though this is a tourist site, no brochures, catalogues or guides of any kind were given out to me, and I was to pay once the tour was over. The exit was through what looked like a “gift shop” though, as it is in most museums.

In what seemed a very timely and planned manner, the nun came to get me and my visit began by us going up a flight of volcanic rock stairs, flanked by a jalousie window to the left of the cross, and in through a large wooden door. We entered a little anteroom that separated a cloistered section reserved for the nuns from the Chapel. I noticed that there was absolutely no signaling of any kind anywhere and I took a moment to ask her why that was (interesting that in doing so I had automatically lowered my voice.) She responded that this was a private Chapel ergo nobody needed any indications to move around. The sisters usually knew everything visitors had to ask because most of them had lived there all their lives. I looked up and noticed a very pink crystal pane, strategically placed above the door, that was creating a very particular curtain of light. I physically felt myself decompressing underneath it and realized that this window, like the breeze in the patio, was transmitting a message and had a symbolic function: it was initiating us for the sacred space we were about to enter. Then the nun asked me a question that I will never forget. Soft-spoken and very straightforwardly, she asked if I had ever felt silence (“alguna vez ha sentido el silencio?”) It dawned to me then and there that silence is the greatest mediator of all. [2]

The Chapel is used twice or three times a day and is truly its own microcosm. The outside space -that of the city, that of the universe- becomes a mere question of perspective. It has approximately seven wooden pews arranged in rows facing the altar, and it was evident from a distance that the sacristy had nothing on it, only a couple of “sister things.” Barragán’s very characteristic concept of austerity was palpable. His high concrete ceilings and another big cross, this one so orange that it almost merged into the spying colors of the day, created a vertical emphasis, perhaps proclaiming a ‘Godward’ elevation of the soul [3]. There were little Bibles on each pew, the only traditional form of communication I saw around, and all the furniture was fitted-in to the walls. The Chapel’s sections were divided by natural light. A golden ray poured in from behind the choir which was situated right above the main entrance. Light can connote many things but here it spoke of peace, prayer, God, observance. And mystery. A sharp wall stretching from the left, the only wall inside the nave, divided the sacred precinct and the altar from the rest of the room, i.e. from the more “earthly” section to the right, where the nuns attend the religious services. As I tried to draw it, I remembered Le Corbusier’s ocean liner sketches or Richard Serra’s Union of the Torus and the Sphere sculpture at Dia Beacon. Towering angles of that nature make one question our own presence, size and significance in the room and in the world.

The entire compound is built in such a slant that it allows sunlight to reflect on specific areas at specific times. The altar, for example, is most bright in the early hours of the day. It basically consists of three golden panels and nothing else. This conducting light, like its “sister” silence, mediated louder than a megaphone. I suddenly realized that it was actually marking the path that we were to follow in our visit (it was not inadvertently that the visits to the Chapel are only allowed in the early hours of the day.) Everything was very ceremonial yet bare from the usual religious iconography. There was only one sign that I saw around and not in plaques or markings but as an integrated part of the architecture. The Tau, which has the shape of a T, is the symbol of the Franciscan order. Luis Barragán fitted it into some of the corners of the walls and windows. According to my guide, it was to bless those who traversed by and Saint Francis himself used it as his own signature.

As my visit came close to an end, I began to understand the building’s complexities and made a promise to myself to return. One goes through many different doorways and stairs and naves in the passage, as if peeling the Chapel’s petals, so a single trip cannot be enough. The building is tremendously discrete on the outside yet it’s bursting with games of sound and silence, light and darkness, roughness and softness, mass and solitude, spirituality and earthliness on the inside. The atmosphere embodies the profound mysticism of tradition and faith with the most refined purity of Modernism I’ve seen. Its architectonic space is defined by simple elements of nature and auspiciousness that make us (me) wonder if they’re not one and the same. “Without the desire for God, our planet would be a sorry wasteland of ugliness” [4]  said Barragán.

Once back outside in the patio, where I could take more pictures and turn on my phone, I went into a little lobby and payed for my visit. I noticed that they also sold homemade Eggnog and jams. They also sold postcards -alas, more media!- and rosaries. I got some for my dad and left happy and at ease. I didn’t need any signs for that just like the Capuchinas evidently didn’t need signs to pray.



[1] Zanco, p. 138

[2] In Henry D. Thoreau words: silence is the universal refuge.

[3] Eco, p. 189

[4] http://www.pritzkerprize.com/1980/ceremony_speech1

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