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A home for light, music, God, and children

Brookline church chapel sings, but exterior criticized

At the Korean Church of Boston in Brookline, Brian Healy’s addition allows for various uses. At the Korean Church of Boston in Brookline, Brian Healy’s addition allows for various uses. (Brian Healy Architects)
By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / November 7, 2010

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BROOKLINE — One of Boston’s best architectural spaces has just opened here in Brookline Village.

“Beauty’’ isn’t a word architects use any more. They think it sounds sentimental, even kitschy. But however they define it, they seek it just the same.

The beautiful new space, if it’s OK to call it that, is the children’s chapel of the Korean Church of Boston. The chapel is the crown jewel in a recently completed addition to the church and among a series of new additions designed by Somerville-based architect Brian Healy.

Healy’s exterior, which features a couple of angular black shapes and a goodly amount of concrete, hasn’t been a unanimous hit with the neighbors. But I can’t imagine anyone failing to fall in love with the chapel interior, especially on a Sunday morning when it’s filled with 60 or 70 enthusiastically singing children.

The chapel is very much a modernist space. It’s informal and asymmetrical. Walls and ceilings are pure white. There’s no ornament. Even the cross is immaterial: it’s made of light, coming through a cutout in the wall behind the altar. More daylight floats in mysteriously from sources you can’t see. The effect is magical.

The space of the chapel is loosely arranged, so it can be used in many different ways. Small children can gather up front for stories and older kids can belt out hymns from the high seating rows at the rear. The chapel is like a freely shaped landscape where you can choose to perch almost anywhere.

There’s lots of warm-toned oak and bamboo. Big windows keep you in touch with the outdoors and its changing seasons and weather. One window deliberately comes to the floor so even the smallest child can see directly out.

The Korean Church of Boston is Presbyterian and was founded in 1953. It draws its members from the entire metropolitan area. All parts of the addition are attached to an older church the congregation has occupied since 1967. It is a handsome red-brick, white-trim building in the traditional style known as Colonial. Nearly all of it has been preserved. Besides the chapel, the new addition includes classrooms, offices, a teen room, outdoor courtyards, and a glass-fronted community room that lines the sidewalk like a public storefront. Total cost was $4.1 million.

The new architecture simply weaves its way among the older elements. The result is a complicated place. It’s easy to get lost, but in return you discover a wealth of unexpected nooks and crannies.

The Reverend Lee Lee sees the mix of styles as a metaphor for the goals of the church. “The new interpenetrates the old,’’ says Lee. Steve Hahn, an elder of the church who led the building effort, is a retired engineer who used to design blade edges for Gillette. He puts it this way: “The idea of combining the old and the new embodies our vision for future generations.’’

Healy hadn’t built much back in 2003 when the church picked him for the job. But he’s long been known as a creative presence in Boston. He’s a former president of the Boston Society of Architects and has taught at Yale and elsewhere. An exhibit of Healy’s work of the past 10 years opens in New York this week, and the Korean Church will be named one of the best American buildings of 2010 in a forthcoming issue of the national magazine “Architecture.’’

The children’s chapel is full of references to icons of modernism. The ceiling, seeming to hang like a hammock overhead, recalls Le Corbusier’s great chapel at Ronchamp, France. The daylight, entering from hidden sources, is like that of the American Steven Holl’s chapel at the University of Seattle. The indoor-outdoor cross reminds you of noted modern chapels in Japan and Finland. Especially visible as a source is the work of the Finn Alvar Aalto, one of the three or four greats of the 20th century. Healy downplays the influence, but admits to a recent tour of Aalto’s work in Finland.

As noted, the building’s exterior hasn’t won any popularity contests among town residents. According to Lee, no one complained when the design was first presented at the Brookline Planning Board. Only when the building was largely built did people begin to groan.

Sometimes, this being literate Brookline, they groaned quite eloquently. One Internet blogger said that the boxy angular chapel, sited among its more traditional neighbors, is “like a big stereo speaker in a room of antique furniture.’’ Another called it “this soul-destroying abomination,’’ and a third predicted: “Wow. Forget any sort of contemporary architecture being welcomed in Brookline for the next 50 years.’’

There’s a law in Massachusetts known as the Dover Amendment, which says that educational institutions, including churches, can more or less ignore local zoning regulations. The Korean Church came under the Dover’s safety blanket and the design moved easily though the Brookline approval process.

Much as I love the chapel, I’ve got sympathy for the naysayers. I wouldn’t want to own the house next door to that black exterior. The planning board shouldn’t have told Healy what to design, but it could have asked him to reconsider the chapel’s cheek-by-dark-jowl relationship to the house.

Church members have begun to soften Healy’s exterior by planting shrub and flower gardens, replacing the architect’s minimalist native grasses. It’s a further sign of their wish to reach out to engage the local community. A Korean cultural festival, to be held partly in the new community room, is planned for the spring.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.