Crown Jewel: Why Thorncrown Chapel is our Architectural Inspiration

When retired schoolteacher Jim Reed purchased a plot of land overlooking the Ozark Hills in 1971, he did not know it would soon be the site of one of the greatest marvels of modern architecture: Thorncrown Chapel.

Though the space was intended for a new home for Reed and his wife to enjoy in their retirement, the land seemed predestined to house the famed chapel; each day saw visitors drawn to the property for its magnificent views and inspiring natural surroundings. Fate or chance had set a clear path for Reed, and he soon commissioned architect E. Fay Jones to design his dream: a chapel where the floods of visitors could gather and reflect in the gentle calm of the woods.

Jones designed the stunning structure to echo the Prairie School of architecture largely popularized by his mentor, the illustrious Frank Lloyd Wright. The majority of the materials used in construction are indigenous to northwestern Arkansas. In addition to minimizing transportation costs and environmental impact, the use of natural materials helps the chapel mesh with its surroundings rather than competing with them. Jones insisted that “no structural element could be larger than what two men could carry through the woods,” a rule of thumb that guided the design process toward the principles of the Prairie School.

Thorncrown_Interior

Glass panels dominate the sides of the chapel, allowing light to pour in from all angles and bathe the space in an ethereal glow. The clarity of the glass and seamless design are so utterly entrancing that when the lush greenery sways in the wind, you expect to feel the breeze within the chapel. Despite its distinctive presence and unforgettable design, the chapel does not impose itself on its surroundings. Thorncrown Chapel does not need to shout to assert its identity; it whispers, quiet but insistent, like the wind.

A close communication of architecture and landscape produces a design so reflective of its surroundings that it seems to have sprung from them naturally, an illusion strengthened by Jones’ use of natural, local materials. MMA Principal John S. MacDonald explains how this design plays into his admiration of the chapel: “The juxtaposition of clean geometric forms and transparency to the pristine natural setting creates a structure that transcends architecture in search of religion.” Architecture acting as a visual expression of natural elements is a core tenet of the Prairie School, which gravitates toward structures that go beyond merely serving the functional needs of their inhabitants—they express an idea.

This concept resonates deeply with our design philosophy at MMA. At every stage of the design process, we are acutely aware that we are not designing a house, but a home. The ideas these homes express vary based on clients’ needs from family-friendly vacation homes to penthouse lofts showcasing curated art collections. But space to space, concept to concept, and person to person, the idea rings through: this is home.

Thorncrown chapel exterior, night

[Photo credit, top to bottom: Brad Holt, Jorge Chapa, Carol M. Highsmith.]