Rothko Chapel

The History and the Design Interpretations

  • Rothko Chapel

    By ykevin98
    May 5, '15 12:45 PM EST

    In the topics of art, architecture, design, and cultivation; the Rothko Chapel subliminally presents each of those disciplines. The Rothko Chapel is the culmination of six years of Mark Rothko’s life and the building itself represents his concern of the transcendent. Within the Chapel space, a divine like feeling and energy is very powerful. Even though, the impression of the tan bricks from the outside makes it look unenticing (figure 1), the power of the atmosphere overwhelms many people. The aesthetics is the messages the Chapel sends alongside with painting installations. It holds the mystery to what the meaning of building and Rothko’s vision. It also conveys other different messages to others whom experiences the quiet meditative space. In further discussion, the Rothko Chapel presents themes of high art, abstraction, asymmetrical relationship, and minimalist aesthetics. 

    When Rothko was working on his next art project, New York was the hot spot for

    modern art. Although, Mark Rothko had many great pieces and due to the big action going on in New York, Houston was the best choice for Rothko to make his artistic statement. The Chapel’s original architect was Philip Johnson, however art collectors Dominique and John de Menils commissioned Rothko to display his work. In the process of developing the plan for the Rothko Chapel, Philip Johnson had a design in mind ready. But, Rothko wasn’t satisfied with any of the ideas Johnson came up with. Thus, Johnson left the project and handed it down to Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry. Howard and Aubry worked closely with Rothko to fulfill Rothko’s idea.



    Upon going into the Chapel, the mind inside the person will start to experience the change in the atmosphere very rapidly. The mind starts to simmer down and the body absorbs the peacefulness. An instant sight for the eye are the fourteen paintings done by Mark Rothko. Each panels are placed specifically by Rothko in order for his paintings to connect with the Chapel. You’ll also observe that the Chapel is in an asymmetrical octagonal space. In a floor plan view of the Rothko Chapel, you can see an abstract and a pictorial kind of layout. It’s in the form of an axial an asymmetrical layout with relationships between each of those elements.

    Rothko wanted to control the space by orientating his paintings in the correct specific wall panel along with where the wall panel should be placed. On the other hand, the paintings seem like they could easily be done without any effort. On that note, some critics even believe that the paintings never existed in the Chapel (Spiegelman). Each paintings were a vision by Rothko and inspired by the Roman Catholicism. But, each of the paintings tell something more than just the color it displays. In fact, Rothko never wanted anyone to just see the painting while they are in the Chapel but to observe a what the feeling is like and take in it. Each paintings were intentionally supposed to be “abstract.” He wants no connection to major events or popular allusions with his paintings. At the same time, the Rothko Chapel speaks in that manner as well. While Rothko planned for the installation and the inner structure, he also organized the Chapel into four pictorial types and within each type, it has its own spatial dispositional members from the octagonal space (Nodelman 304). The axial and radial formations within the design displays a relatively small number of consistent relationships, and the most significant relationship is between the axial symmetry and the specularity due to the main axis of the chapel (Nodelman 250). The diagonal axes formed by the four angles wall panels are perfectly specular and generate a asymmetrical sequence. “The axial-dyadic and radial-triadic corresponds to a structural linguistics by Roman Jakobson and Ferdinand de Saussure. Each of them are in between the two great operation al axes governing the verbal language and the human intellectual activity” (Nodelman 250). The asymmetrical axial layout is the metaphor of the installations and the Chapel. The relationship between the layout and the configuration of the Chapel defines the space and creates modern architecture in a whole new level. 

    Due to the fact that the Chapel has an axial layout, one theme is being presented by abstraction between the relationships among the asymmetry and the angles that form and create a sequence. From the exterior aspect, a first impression mostly comes up are like boredom, too bland, or intriguing. But the “blandness gives way to mystery, sobriety and warmth” (Spiegelman). Mystery comes with complexity of the artistic message. Rothko once compared his paintings to voices in an opera (Nodelman 312). And like the opera, he could assemble a crew and formulate the results. Alike, the paintings are crew and the Chapel sets the stage.  As mentioned before, the relationships between the tryptic wall panels and the axial form presents a structural metaphor. This metaphor is the Chapel being like an opera or orchestra, listening and experiencing the music and what the composer’s story is in that music. The recessed back wall and the irregular octagonal shaped space forms the abstraction. Another theme presented is minimalist aesthetics. The geometrical octagonal shape has an intentional means to make it odd, complicated, abstract. The beauty of the Chapel is different from the beauty of other modern and postmodern architecture buildings. Thus, the aesthetics are the abstract art, religion, and the architecture of the Chapel.

    The Rothko Chapel has complexity in its layout. By seeing it in person while experiencing the building, the dark red and black colored paintings create a metaphor, allowing a relationship within the space to become like an opera. When viewing the floor plan, a picture or image is presented in an abstract way in which Rothko’s idea is like Mie’s “less is more.” If  Rothko was still here today, he would continue bringing up highly difficult art and architecture.



    Works Cited

    Bailey, J., & Texas Foundation for the Arts. (2012). The art of architecture: Houston. Houston, Tex: Texas Foundation for the Arts.

    Barnes, S. J., Menil, J. ., Menil, D. ., Rothko, M., Newman, B., & Johnson, P. (1989). The Rothko Chapel: An act of faith. Houston, TX: Rothko Chapel.

    Binkovitz, Leah. “The Quiet, Quiet Signs of Rothko Chapel.” Houston Chronicle, 30 Sept. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2015

    Curtis, William J.R. Modern Architecture Since 1900, Phaidon, 1996. ISBN: 0714833568

    Dowell, Pat. “Meditation And Modern Art Met In Rothko Chapel.” NPR, 01 Mar. 2011. Web. 12 Feb. 2015

    Fox, S., & Moorhead, G. (1990). Houston architectural guide. Houston, Tex.: American Institute of Architects, Houston Chapter

    Fox, S., (2001). Rice University: Campus Guide, New York: Princeton Architectural Press

    “Mark Rothko.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d Web 12 Feb. 2015


    Menil, D. ., Koch, P., Lovejoy, D., Stephens, F. C., & Rothko Chapel (Houston, Tex.). (2010). The Rothko Chapel: Writings on art and the threshold of the divine. Houston, Tex.: Rothko Chapel.

    Moorhead, G. (2013). Buildings of Texas: Central, South, and Gulf Coast. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press

    Nodelman, S., & Menil Collection (Houston, Tex.). (1997). The Rothko Chapel paintings: Origins, structure, meaning. Austin: University of Texas Press.

    Richards, A., Mandela, N., Carter, J., Rothko Chapel (Houston, Tex.), & Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation. (1992). The Rothko Chapel awards for commitment to truth and freedom: The Carter-Menil Human Rights Prize, 1991. Atlanta, Ga: the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation, the Carter Center.

     “Rothko Chapel.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d Web 12 Feb. 2015

    Spiegelman, William. "An Interior of Spiritual and Artistic Subtlety." WSJ. N.p., 26 Feb. 2011. Web. 29 Mar. 2015

    “Torcello Cathedral.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d Web 12 Feb. 2015

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About this Blog

I will be discussing about the Rothko Chapel and the design concepts of the building design. It will be a discussion about Rothko's intentional ideas of the kind of layout the Rothko Chapel has. I will also be describing the relationship between Rothko's paintings and the Chapel itself.

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