Fly-By Worship: The Typology of the Airport Chapel

Airports have often been characterized as “non-places.” Their architecture may differ on the outside, but the skin merely conceals the same combination of restaurants, shops, restrooms and gates on the inside. While the building itself serves as a connector between you and your destination, one space transcends the otherwise transient airport: the airport chapel. Approximately three dozen domestic airports contain a chapel space, little known to most travelers. Even though they are often tucked away in Terminal C or 4, far from the main concourse, chapels have existed in airports for decades.

Chapels were not originally part of the program of the airport as it originated in the 1920s. In 1945, an Eastern Airways employee by the name of Edwin Hogg began to campaign for a chapel to be built at Boston Logan International Airport in part so fellow employees would have the opportunity to worship between shifts or on breaks. [1] Its patronage expanded to travelers faced with bereavement flights, anxious about air travel, or just looking for an opportunity to worship between destinations. This first incarnation was aimed specifically at Catholics and officially named “Our Lady of the Airways.” It had all the trappings of a traditional Catholic chapel: a circular wooden railing surrounded an altar over which a large statue of Mary presided. This kind of adaptation of the ornate Catholic space became the form for other chapels that were built in airports like Chicago-O’Hare, New York’s JFK (named Our Lady of the Skies, similar to Boston), and the now-destroyed Cleveland Hopkins. All of these contained a large central cross over an altar, surrounded by generic waiting-room style upholstered chairs of various (and sometimes, by the look of them, dubious) quality. Chairs appear in rows resembling pews, or radiate from the altar in a semi-circle. In spaces at Cleveland Hopkins and JFK, colorful stained glass windows flanked the altar, hearkening back to more traditional free-standing religious spaces. The root of the form is directly tied to the Catholic chapel that it sought to emulate, aided by the agency of chaplains and diocese who rented the space from the airport itself.

As chapels began to appear in airports across the country, the form morphed from that of a Catholic chapel to that of a non-denominational Christian space. Cleveland destroyed its former chapel in 2008 with the aim of making a new, smaller space “less Catholic.” [2] While crosses still hung over altar spaces at the front of the room, the traditional Virgin Mary statues and other paraphernalia associated with Catholicism were eliminated or diminished. Chapels now held imagery that could be stretched across denominations; doves, trees, and lambs are often the subject of stained glass and artwork that hang in addition to or in place of the cross and other Catholic iconography. Spaces like Orlando, Miami and Washington-Dulles capitalize on this form – being less prescriptive in terms of religious belief allows for more people of faith to utilize the space. The layout and furniture remain the same; upholstered (and sometimes, unfortunately for those spending a long layover, just plain plastic) chairs, in rows and recessed fluorescent lighting. Neutral colors dominate, ranging from muted greens to tans and off-whites. The non-denominational spaces are much less decorated than their Catholic predecessors, most likely because their funding no longer comes from a diocese but from the airport itself.

The most recently created airport chapel spaces differ the most from the original typeform of Our Lady of the Airways. They do away with most spiritual or religious art and iconography. Known as “interfaith chapels” or “meditation rooms”, these spaces strip away almost all ornament. Interfaith chapels may contain rows of chairs, an “altar” of sorts, and due to increased acknowledgment of religions aside from Christianity, a Muslim prayer rug facing in the appropriate direction and omission of the cross, allowing for those who practice Judaism to also benefit. Without any kind of iconographic restraint, the interfaith space can take any direction its user wants. In Atlanta, there is merely a large representation of the graphic icon for “Prayer”, a simplified person kneeling, that directs travelers to the room itself over the altar; icon worship at its most basic. Aside from rows of chairs and a small bookshelf, there is no decoration. Pittsburgh also uses this model, making the room seem more like a church in a temporary space than an oasis for weary travelers. Here, the interfaith chapel falls right in line with the “non-place” aesthetic seen throughout the rest of the airport. While the space offers silence and chance for reflection, its complete lack of character makes it seem like something has been lost compared to the colorful, more complex appearance of the original chapels.

In some cases, though, the idea of an interfaith chapel or meditation room has produced abstract and powerful new forms. Washington-Reagan offers a space that is strangely intimate and comforting. Large upholstered chairs face one another in a square, ringed by bench seating on the outside. This unusual placement offers travelers an opportunity to have time to themselves, but also to encourage comforting one another or having dialogue. The space is void of any decoration, but its warm and bright lighting seeks to reassure the traveler. In an even further break from the form, San Francisco International Airport’s interfaith space is open and bright, with plenty of plants and seating. Large windows offer plenty of natural light, as opposed to the fluorescent lighting of other, more generic spaces. Without being drab or boring, it offers travelers a space to worship, contemplate, and rest. This abandonment of the typical “leftover office space” vernacular of other airport chapels brings back the consideration of the early Catholic chapels without having to depend on religious materials. In this sense, the form has been reinterpreted and secularized.

The question is, does getting away from the traditional notion of a chapel mean something is lost? When an “interfaith chapel” is merely a room with a grouping of chairs and a large icon hung on the wall, does it retain any ties at all to faith? No matter the appearance, according to chaplains across the nation, chapel visitation has been up one-third since the events of September 11th, 2001. [3] While some spaces seem more relaxing and welcoming than others (I’d rather spend my moments of contemplation in San Francisco than say, Pittsburgh), perhaps just the set-aside nature of a chapel as a “place” within a non-place is enough to offer travelers of any – or no – denomination peace.

Sources:
[1] Harvard University Pluralism Research Report – http://pluralism.org/reports/view/82
[2] Cleveland Airport Considers Making Chapel “Less Catholic” – http://www.wkyc.com/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=90238
[3] “Airport chapels help flyers keep the faith, or just relax” – http://www.usatoday.com/travel/news/2004-12-20-chapel-usat_x.htm

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