Gillean Denny ’07 A&A, a former housemate of Revie’s at Cambridge University and now an architect in Québec, knew the Porziuncola well. Her grandparents had been fascinated by Francis of Assisi, and Denny had grown up seeing images of the 13th-century saint as he is often depicted—with birds or other animals, outside in nature. Catholics believe he received a calling from God to “rebuild the Church” and at first took that command literally, fixing up a dilapidated chapel he’d found in the woods. Called the Porziuncola, or “tiny portion,” that small chapel became such a sacred space that it was eventually placed inside a huge cathedral in Assisi, the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, ironically separating it from the natural world that Francis had loved.
In thinking about Revie’s idea, Denny took the exact footprint of the Porziuncola and twisted it, keeping the dimensions of the original walls but separating them to, quite literally, let nature in.
“It’s this whole idea of caretaking nature,” Denny says. “St. Francis had a hedge around the chapel, which doesn’t exist anymore because the chapel is now inside. But we put the hedge on the chapel, so the chapel has now become the hedge, and everyone has to take care of it.”
Revie loved the design; building it was another matter. In the summer of 2019, Denny reached out to her friend and
former professor James Kalsbeek at the College of Arts and Architecture. “I built a lot of strange projects when I was [at Penn State], on very interesting timelines,” says Denny. “I had faith that Penn State could pull it off, because I’d done it as a student.”
Besides the university having the resources—and resourcefulness—needed, she thought the Living Chapel project might be right up Kalsbeek’s alley. He had taught Denny for a semester in Rome and is particularly interested in projects of reclamation. Denny pitched the idea for a chapel made of “green” walls that would be designed and built in Pennsylvania, shipped overseas, installed in Rome, and then unveiled at the Vatican in May 2020 before finding its permanent home just outside of Assisi that summer.
The performative aspect of the chapel’s unveiling, and its tight timeline, intrigued Kalsbeek. “Building a building usually takes years,” he says. Knowing Denny was at the helm helped: Kalsbeek remembered putting her in charge of a design build site in Philadelphia during a class field trip when she was a freshman. In 2007, she’d been lead designer on the MorningStar Solar Home for a national competition in Washington, D.C.; she had experience building something themed around sustainability that was also designed to be moved.
Kalsbeek recruited a select team of mostly grad students with varied expertise and a can-do attitude he knew would be needed. The group included Andrzejewski, grad students Elizabeth Rothrock ’18, ’20 MS A&A and Kacie Ward ’20 MS A&A, and research assistants Becca Newburg ’18 A&A, Garrett Socling, and Dani Spewak ’18 A&A. By September 2019, the design phase was in full swing, and the plans kept expanding. Solar panels would power an irrigation system to feed the plants. A music wall with scrap metal wind chimes and pan drums clad with recycled materials—scraps from a Pennsylvania auto metal stamping plant—would add artistic interest. That same wall would feature donated steel pan drums played with mallets whose motion would be propelled by the water running through the irrigation system—assuming they could figure out a way to do that.
With a deadline of Jan. 30, 2020, to get every last chapel piece on its way overseas, Kalsbeek reached out to Pennsylvania College of Technology’s welding department for help. James Colton II, assistant professor of welding at the Penn State affiliate in Williamsport, Pa., thought such an unusual build would offer valuable experience for his students and publicity for the college. Penn College had opened a new 55,000-square-foot fabrication shop that fall, making it the largest educational welding facility in North America—and just 63 miles from University Park, where Kalsbeek’s students were creating an intricate irrigation system and troubleshooting pan drum design issues in the mostly empty Laundry Building across from Beaver Stadium.
Colton and his crew, including welding instructor Jacob Holland, didn’t get their first finalized drawing from Denny until just before Thanksgiving 2019, which kicked off a two-month sprint of measuring, cutting, and welding, all while conferencing with Denny on suggested design changes.
“I feel like this project has been one series of miracles after another,” Denny says. “I had the initial fabrication idea of how to build all these walls, then Lizz [Andrzejewski] took it and made it even better, and now Jim and his team at Penn College have finessed it a little bit more, and it’s a million times better than my initial idea of how to make this work.”
While collaboration made for a better finished product, it also made for a more complicated one, stretching the team thin on time and resources. Colton, Holland, and their colleagues worked between classes, during office hours, after school, and on weekends to get the job done, putting in more than 300 hours each of their own time. The same was true for Kalsbeek’s crew, who worked several 10- and 12-hour days through January welding, 3D-printing, troubleshooting, and designing.
Revie, meanwhile, spent much of the 2019 winter break in Rome getting the structural details approved by the Vatican, partnering with several nurseries there to begin growing plants for the chapel’s walls, and setting up space and manpower at the Rome Botanical Garden for the structure’s installation. Arrangements were made to launch the Living Chapel globally through Vatican and international media channels in May 2020; the project was to be kept secret until then. But behind closed doors there were talks of the chapel kicking off a formal movement on climate change that would include Laudato si’–inspired gardens and tree plantings around the world, all in alignment with the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “I’ve been very interested to see how this project that began as a purely artistic theological project has evolved into art for action,” Revie says.
January 2020 passed in a blur of activity at Penn College and University Park. Colton received Denny’s shop drawings of the finalized chime wall—the most intricate piece of the structure—on Jan. 20, just two weeks before it needed to be on its way to Italy. And after his crew built it, Kalsbeek’s team had to install and test the pan drums and arrange and weld the car parts to its frame. Colton, his colleagues, and a half-dozen students worked around the clock to finish it, handing it off like a relay baton to the team at University Park.
Newburg coordinated undergraduate volunteers to help with the last-minute rush, setting up an assembly line of cutting, drilling, bending, and assembling all 37 pan drums, while Andrzejewski, Ward, Rothrock, and Spewak cut, ground, and welded scrap metal to the frame and Socling led the 3D-printing of scoops that would hold and release the irrigated water, in turn propelling mallets to hit the drums.
A couple of nights before the chime wall was scheduled to ship, Andrzejewski, Newburg, and Socling, who’d been working a string of 12-hour days, took a few minutes to sit and marvel at what they’d made. “Becca and I and Garrett just sat there for a bit looking at it,” Andrzejewski says. “And I’m really glad we did that.” They knew that night there wouldn’t be time to get all the pan drums in place, but they felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment for having gotten that far in the marathon design build.
The following month, they assured one another, they’d get to carry this over the finish line in Rome.