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Wood that glows

While translucency is not a characteristic normally associated with wood, an installation in Minnesota’s Bigelow Chapel demonstrates the warmth and radiance that translucent wood can bring to an environment. 

The sanctuary’s curving and undulating wood panels are made from a quilted big-leaf maple tree that was harvested in America’s Pacific Northwest. Although big-leaf maple is common to the region, the quilted variety is a rare and special variety. What causes the quilting is not fully understood but the result is a distortion of the grain pattern itself which gives the finish of the wood a deep wavelike effect. It is a material quality that is highly valued by furniture and even musical instrument makers.

The harvested log was shipped to Germany where it was peeled and then sent onward to Indiana where it was cut into very thin veneer strips that are 0.8 mm thick. It is the thinness of these veneer strips that gives the material its transparent effect. Craftsman Wilke Sanderson then laminated the maple strips with a nonreflective acrylic and installed the panels within a curving wooden frame to create floor-to-ceiling translucent ribbons that are 2 meters in width.

The United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, Minnesota is an ecumenical graduate and professional school of theology. The seminary is of the United Church of Christ but the 250 students who attend come from a variety of faith backgrounds. The sanctuary is the spiritual heart of the building and the design challenge set out by the seminary was to create an iconographically accessible space that evokes the presence of God yet reflects the diverse spiritual lives of the seminary. HGA responded to the challenge with this curving and rippling wooden installation that aims to embrace a trinity of spiritual qualities: intimacy, warmth and light. The installation achieves this with a curving wooden structure that envelops the congregants and creates intimate spaces for prayer and reflection. At the same time, the translucency of the wooden panels floods the space with a filtered and honey-coloured light that lends warmth and radiance to the sanctuary environment.

The chapel was designed by Joan Soranno and John Cook of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson Inc. and you can read more about their work here.