Julian Revie/Gillean Denny – the Living Chapel – A Vatican Project with Ties to Old Ottawa East

JAYSON MACLEAN

There’s a one-of-a-kind building taking root across the pond in the Gardens of Vatican City in Rome, one bearing a distinct connection to Old Ottawa East.

Inspired by Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, a call to arms delivered in 2015 to environmentalists and Christians alike, the Living Chapel is a swirling, verdant expression of hope for the planet, a meditation on humankind’s capacity to rebuild our symbiotic connection to Nature.

Flush with colour and a feast for the senses, the chapel walls are made from living plants and recycled materials that actually ring out in song, chiming to the drip-drip of water through the structure’s solar-powered irrigation system.

Architect Gillean Denny and composer/visionary Julian Revie are the creative inspiration for the Living Chapel. Photo Supplied

Architect Gillean Denny and composer/visionary Julian Revie are the creative inspiration for the Living Chapel.
Photo Supplied

Not bad for an idea first hatched by composer Julian Revie, who grew up on Onslow Crescent in Old Ottawa East, and brought to life by architect Gillian Denny, a friend of Revie’s who is now married to his OOE neighbourhood friend, Philippe Bernier.

Denny says Revie had proposed the project to the Vatican as a response to the Laudato Si, a straight-up rebuke if there ever was one of both our ongoing exploitation of nature and the paltry efforts we’ve so far made to address climate change.

But it was the encouraging tone in Pope Francis’ letter that provided the motivation for the Chapel, Denny says.

“No one had ever built an entire building out of living walls before,” Denny said, “And Laudato Si was a message of hope, so we wanted to express this idea of rebuilding our Mother Earth and helping it out, the feeling that we can do this.”

Denny, whose work has taken her around the world a number of times, including more recently the redeveloping of a primate research centre in China, decided the Chapel would be put together in her native Philadelphia, with help from students and faculty at her alma mater, Penn State’s Stuckeman School and nearby Pennsylvania College of Technology.

The level of complexity was off the charts, however, not just in terms of design elements and logistics but on the concept side, too — Denny and Revie were dealing with the Vatican, after all.

“Basically, I kept coming up with design ideas and throwing them Julian’s way and he would take them back to the theologians who would kick things around and then send them back to me,” Denny said.

“For the actual building part of the process, it was nice to have Julian physically come to some of our build meetings. He was able to tinker around with some of the designers at Penn State who were helping me figure out how to make the music system work,” she said.

The Living Chapel debuted in the Vatican’s Botanical Gardens this past June, and if you’re thinking, ‘Gee, how’d that go during COVID?’ you’d be right on target.

The entire structure of the Living Chapel is built of living walls. Photo Supplied

The entire structure of the Living Chapel is built of living walls. Photo Supplied

One element of the plot twist involved thousands of tree saplings which were meant to be part of the Chapel walls.“When Italy went into complete lockdown, no one was allowed to do anything, so the Chapel sat in pieces in the Botanical Garden for a while, and by the time they were able to actually assemble it, the saplings were actually too big to go on,” Denny said. “So, we just put them into planter barrels with the idea of eventually distributing them to schools throughout Italy, which will be really nice.”

“There was also supposed to be a whole musical concert coming together in conjunction with the big reveal in Rome, which, unfortunately, thanks to social distancing, was not happening,” Denny said.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Denny now lives in Arnprior where she, Philippe and their two daughters are not far from the grandparents in Old Ottawa East. Denny has been working on an energy-efficient passive house for her family in Chelsea, Quebec, with the move coming up in a few weeks.

Looking back, Denny says her feelings about the Living Chapel project are mixed, as there’s been a definite lack of closure due to the pandemic. The Chapel was designed as a reinterpretation of Saint Francis of Assisi’s church, the Porziuncola, with the intention being that the Chapel would move to Assisi after a short stay in the Vatican.

“We’re sort of stuck in limbo, with the Assisi site not yet prepared,” Denny said. “All of the people who physically built the structure in the United States, me included, were supposed to go to Italy to assemble it and unpack the boxes, but we didn’t get to do that.”

“It kind of feels like a weird dream that you woke up halfway through,” says Denny. “Still, it was wonderful to reconnect with people and to work on the Chapel together, and I wouldn’t give that up for the world.”

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