Tuesday, April 3, 2012

C is for Chapel of the Chimes

Reflecting Pool at Hearst Castle (via Destination Design)
After I got bored of wanting to be a paleontologist at the tender age of seven or so, I discovered architecture. Specifically, I discovered Julia Morgan. I spent hours poring over books about her. I read The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, which has a fabulous stone mansion in it, and I decided to design my own -- borrowing liberally from pictures of Hearst Castle and the fanciest building I had ever been in at the time, the Claremont Hotel in Oakland, California. I couldn't draw for beans, so every night when I went to bed I would lie awake building it in my head. I managed to perfect it to the point where I could walk in and out of most of the rooms in my my mind as if they were physically around me. I can still open the drawers in the tower bedroom I build for myself, which had a stream running through it and a yellow sandstone balcony. (I had expensive taste for a ten-year-old living in a grungy house in Oakland with orange shag carpeting.) I thought I was all set: great, cool, got a life dream and a career plan, what's so hard about this stuff, anyway? At a certain point, however, it occurred to me that I wasn't going to be able to just waltz into the Ecole de Beaux-Arts (partly because I couldn't draw for beans) and I would have to go to boring school for years and years and then build ugly apartment buildings instead of just, you know, being the next Julia Morgan, already. It was hard, being surrounded by her gorgeous work everywhere I went (Oakland and Berkeley are full of her buildings). But after a while I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker instead (a plan which lasted me all the way through my second semester of college!) and gave up on her buildings.

Well, mostly. There was just this one, you see...
"I have always imagined Paradise would be a kind of library." - Jorge Luis Borges

The Chapel of the Chimes, which which happened to be almost walking distance from the house with the shag carpeting, is less like a funeral home than a library for the dead. It is, in my mind, Julia's most spectacular building. It is less luxurious than Hearst Castle, by a fair amount - the dead, after all, do not need swimming pools or Persian carpets, or at least not the kind that the living can enjoy. But in terms of the light that comes into it, the shape and mystery of the rooms, well -- I would say it is far more beautiful, mysterious, splendid and alive. It has remained one of the most important and inspirational buildings in my life, and it is certainly a major influence on my ideas about the Museum.

From Wikipedia
The Chapel of the Chimes is a columbarium, which is a lovely, lilting word for a place where dead people's ashes are stored. It is a fairly unprepossessing pinkish building on the outside, vaguely Spanish Mission to my uneducated-about-anything-but-Julia's-style eyes, but within -- within it is a series of linked chapels made of lacy stone and light, filled with tiny gardens and shelves and shelves of glass boxes in which bronze-colored books and jars hold the last tangible remains of somebody's loved ones. The fact that so many of the repositories are book-shaped underscores, for me, the strange aura of being in a mystical house of worship dedicated not to the spirit of God but to the spirit of books. It is possible to wander for hours in this place; you can see a little chapel with an enticing stained-glass window, walk straight toward it, and find yourself somewhere else altogether. Like any place with that kind of subtly shifting geometry, there is an air of mystery, of being suspended somewhere on the borders between things, in a place where the veil grows thin.

So there I was in high school, busy becoming a film snob. I was lucky to have a great video production program thanks to our teacher, Jeff Castle, who worked tirelessly to see that our (public) school got the kind of resources that nearly matched what I had when I got to a fancy private college later. (Granted, that fancy private college was Hampshire, which, while deeply beloved by me, is broke as a joke because it's only 40 years old and has an endowment smaller than the one for its sister school Smith College's greenhouse.) He had a lot of wonderful ideas for assignments, one of which was a thing called a hip-hop montage. I made my hip-hop montage assignment into a complete and utter pretext to shoot a movie involving the Chapel of the Chimes. (A hip-hop montage is a quick montage using tiny snippets of film and sound to show a complex moment, invented by director Darren Aronofsky for the films Pi Requiem for a Dream to show drug use in a subtle and disturbing way. Some of the sound choices I made in my video, such as the weird pinging noise, can be attributed to the fact that I saw Requiem for a Dream under really embattled circumstances. I could tell you what they were, but then I'd have to kill you. Let's just say that the film's message of drugs are really horrifying, kids, is even more convincing if you are not, ahem, unintoxicated when watching it. Seriously, I thought my brain was bleeding. Did I mention that I watched it in class? And being a nice kid with a healthy fear of authority not given to running screaming out of classrooms for no apparent reason, I had to just sit there and watch it? Man, that soundtrack REALLY gets under your skin. Euuchh. That cured me of any interest I had in psychotropic substances for a LONG time.)


The slight cringe factor of this notwithstanding (those intertitles bear a peculiar resemblance to the stories I wrote between the ages of about four to nine, in which a lot of very tragic things happen to bee-yoo-tee-full pincesses and unicorns...especially the last card, which has a wonderful and probably completely unironic twist to it that was totally typical of seven-year-old me), I am glad it's still around (almost ten years old now, yeesh) just because it shows off the beauty of the Chapel in a way still photos simply can't. And despite my odd love affair with Death-as-sad-sexy-young-man (that's not me in the video, but certainly a proxy), I do think I got some things right -- the music, mostly, which I think does suit the eerie and beautiful stillness of the Chapel.

Steve Kent at the Garden of Memory. Photo via Dactyls & Drakes
If you're in or near the Bay Area, here's a thing to know: every year, on the summer solstice, the Chapel holds a decidedly un-chapel-like event, called The Garden of Memory, in which musicians from all over the Bay come together in the Chapel and set themselves up in the nooks and crannies with their instruments. As you wander through the airy halls and tiny indoor gardens, music drifts in and out: a snatch of didgeridoo, of clarinet, of a man playing wineglasses - in fact, the song that bookends the movie, "Desert Melody," is from an album full of wild music called Song + Distance by Miguel Frasconi, whom I first heard playing an astonishing array of glass vessels and bowls during Garden of Memory one year long ago. It's a strange, mystical event; you can follow the thread of music like Ariadne's string through the Labyrinth. People are all reverent, hushed, a little bit exultant. It's a joyful event, but a quietly joyful one. One of my earliest memories of thinking about joy comes from the first Garden of Memory I ever attended -- I strongly recall sitting in the Chinese restaurant across the street afterwards, trying to explain to my father how it made me feel -- like sunlight coming through leaves. I was maybe ten, poking the lemon chicken around on my plate, and my heart was three times too big for my body with the resonant, vibratory light of that place. And you know, from the very beginning, maybe, I knew that that was what I wanted to build. My dreams of being an architect were not that different from my dreams of being a filmmaker are not that different from my desire as an artist: to make something you can step into, physically or emotionally or spiritually, and feel your heart crack open with the strange, trembling, wild beauty of it.

Do you have a place that does this for you? Please, please, share it with me!


  1. Wow! Very interesting blog today. I liked it. I lived in SF for 11 years, but I rarely got over to Berkeley. I did have my wedding reception there because we couldn't afford anywhere in SF. Part of the reason we moved away. Anyway...
    I saw "Requiem for a Dream" with my Mom. Big mistake. I don't think I've ever been more uncomfortable watching a film.

    1. Yeah, the SF prices are nuts. I love the Berkeley hills, but can't afford to live there either...*sigh* I mostly just mope around Western MA being homesick, which is much more affordable and occasionally lends itself to nostalgia-driven bouts of inspiration (i.e. most of my A-Z challenge). So I can sympathize. Do you miss the Bay?

  2. Beautiful photos and stuff. I wanted to be an artist. I can draw pretty good, but I really wanted to be writer by the time I reached thirty and eventually my dream came true when I retired and started writing full time. I do love the Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua, New York. Hope to visit it for real some day instead of just gawking at pictures. Great blog.

    1. Ooo, thanks for the tip on the Sonnenberg Gardens! I checked out their website after reading your comment and they look BEAUTIFUL. And thank you! I've been enjoying your unique take on the A-Z as well!

  3. That Chapel of Chimes looks pretty neat.
    I have never seen that movie. Now, I am pretty sure I don't want to.
    There is a place right outside my hometown that I have always loved to go. It is the site of an old flour mill on the river.
    The little waterfall is still there and there is a memorial with one of the old grinding stones. I am not sure why, but it is just so very peaceful.

  4. Ruth, that sounds lovely. I have always loved running water. One of the reasons I love the Chapel is because it has a couple of tiny fountains in it. But there's nothing like a real flowing stream or river. My boyfriend works in a bookstore/coffeeshop that lives in an old mill building, and the structure itself is also just so lovely and pleasant to be in. Thank you for such a delightful image!


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