Theaster Gates’ Black Chapel: the sacred in motion
Over the summer of 2022, the greenery of Hyde Park has had a black hole at its heart. The 21st of the Serpentine Gallery’s Summer Pavilion projects is designed by Theaster Gates in collaboration with Adjaye Associates architects. As we head into autumn the building will soon be deconstructed, so before it is but a dark memory with a footprint lost to leaf cover, Marwa El Mubark went to consider the space.

Since the advent of modernity, the theme of transformation or translation of the sacred into the vocabulary of everyday life is one that has preoccupied many designers. The desire to imbue buildings with meaning and sentiment – to go beyond mere façade or form – is an ever-present challenge in contemporary design.

In the 1954 poem Church Going by Philip Larkin, the protagonist contemplates the demise and disrepair of sacred structures in an increasingly modern context, posing the question “when churches will fall completely out of use, what shall we turn them into?” Through its dissemination of the sacred into the everyday ritual of life, Black Chapel, a collaboration between Theaster Gates and Sir David Adjaye, proposes one possible answer.


Employing the usual architectural tools of rhythm, movement and light as scaffolded by the primacy of form, the structure is an immediate and visceral response to the loss of sacred structures that marked Gates’ childhood. This is explicit at the entrance which features a bronze bell salvaged from St Laurence, a landmark Catholic Church that once stood in Chicago’s South Side, intended to ring the call for congregation. There is an explicit focus on ritual, or the act of ritual in everyday life.

Unlike a real chapel, where the audience knows or has learned to be silent through learned experience upon entering, the audible volume in this chapel waxes and wanes as people move through, linger, and exit out the other side. Ritual is also implicit in the printed works that the artist has produced – a series of seven new tar works hang as panels inside the pavilion and honour his father’s craft as a roofer through their technique.


In contrast to Gates’ previous work, such as A Clay Sermon exhibited at Whitechapel Gallery – a very dense and materially focused exhibition which carried a lot of weight and immediacy – this project is very light, almost skeletal. As the artist’s first inhabited project, the transformation from the object as observed to the object as inhabited epitomises the idea of the vessel. Somewhere in this inversion of perspectives, the role of materials is reversed from the focus as something to be observed externally to a background role of containing space – or freeing up space – to be occupied.

Inspired by the kilns of Stoke-on-Trent, and the beehive kilns of the western United States, Black Chapel is an extruded, cylindrical volume of structural oak frames, cloaked in plywood and stained timber boards. Inside, the hallowed chamber is defined by steel used to structure the spoke wheel roof above and a concrete floor below. An oculus allows light to pierce an otherwise shadowy interior, highlighting the centre and forcing all other materials to fade into the perimeter as aided by their painting black.


All of this materiality, however, is backdrop to the hushed sounds of moving bodies within the space. In this dim light, the intimacies of gathering are made apparent. Two entrances aligned on axis allow visitors in one end and out the other. Between these two points, a motion choreographed by the circular form. There is a rhythm with which perimeter seating is filled. The semi-circular benches accommodate a maximum of three people per bay.

Once filled, newcomers must stand around until seats become available and in doing so create a chain of people on rotation throughout the day. This necklace of movement continues unbroken as an overlay, running in parallel to the daily solar cycle as documented by the oculus above.

Although overt in its referencing of sacred geometries through a circular form and oculus, there is none of the allegory of traditional sacred structures with their associated references of journey and pilgrimage. Instead, the structure is positioned simply and accessibly in an open park – a reference perhaps to the position its authors feel that the sacred should occupy as part of the infrastructure of the everyday, the banal.

There is no doubt that the sacred has become a peripheral experience in modern, day to day life. Like the authors of this chapel, there is a desire to recentre a certain type of experience, to disseminate and translate the immaterial to the material and the tangible. In describing the black chapel, gates states “it is about the loss of the sacred in the everyday”; paradoxically I think it highlights the sacred in the everyday; by slowing down movement, changing tempo and elevating the ordinary act of reflection, it reveals the sacred in everyday motion – and as Larkin’s protagonist identifies in his poem, that much can never be obsolete.


Church Going

Philip Larkin, 1954

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thus shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, done an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he by my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Marwa El Mubark is an architect and educator at the Kingston School of Art. Her current research is interested in the re-use of traditional materials as basis for sustainable re-construction and cultural preservation along the River Nile. This explores broader aims of decolonising and disseminating underrepresented narratives across design culture. She is currently undertaking an MSc in Building Conservation. Her writing on landscape and identity has appeared across Journals and publications including CARTHA Magazine, Foreign Exchange and The Architectural Review among others.

Theaster Gates (b. 1973) creates works that engage with space theory, land development, sculpture and performance. Drawing on his interest and training in urban planning and preservation, the artist redeems spaces that have been left behind. His work contends with the notion of Black space as a formal exercise, one defined by collective desire, artistic agency and the tactics of a pragmatist. In 2010, Gates created the Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit platform for art, cultural development and neighbourhood transformation that supports artists and strengthens communities through free arts programming and innovative cultural amenities on Chicago’s South Side.

Gates has exhibited and performed at The Victoria and Albert Museum (2021), London, UK; Whitechapel Gallery (2013 and 2021), London, UK; Tate Liverpool, UK (2020); Haus der Kunst, Munich (2020); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2019); Palais de Tokyo Paris, France (2019); Sprengel Museum Hannover, Germany (2018); Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland (2018); National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA (2017); Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada (2016); Fondazione 10/37 Prada, Milan, Italy (2016); Punta della Dogana, Venice, Italy (2013) and dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany (2012).

Gates is the twelfth recipient of the Frederick Kiesler Prize for Architecture and the Arts (2021). In 2020, Gates received the Crystal Award for his leadership in creating sustainable communities. He was the winner of the Artes Mundi 6 Prize and a recipient of the Légion d'Honneur in 2017. He was awarded the Nasher Prize for Sculpture 2018, as well as the Urban Land Institute’s J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. Gates is a professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Visual Arts and serves as the Senior Advisor for Cultural Innovation and Advisor to the Dean at the Harris School of Public Policy. Gates is currently included in A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration at the Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, Mississippi from April 9 – September 11, 2022; and in STILL ALIVE, featured at Aichi Triennale, Tokoname, Japan from July 30 – October 10, 2022.

Sir David Adjaye OBE is a Ghanaian-British architect who has received international acclaim for his impact on the field. In 2000 he founded Adjaye Associates, which today operates globally with studios in Accra, London, and New York and on projects spanning the globe. Adjaye’s largest project to date, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, opened on the National Mall in Washington DC in 2016 and was named “Cultural Event of the Year” by The New York Times.

In 2017, Adjaye was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and was included in TIME'S 100 Most
Influential People List. He was winner of the 2021 RIBA Royal Gold Medal. Approved personally by Her Majesty the Queen, the Royal Gold Medal is considered one of the highest honours in British architecture for significant contribution to the field internationally. Adjaye is also the recipient of the World Economic Forum’s 27th Annual Crystal Award, which recognizes his “leadership in 35/37 serving communities, cities and the environment,” and was recently honored as an inaugural recipient of the TIME100 Impact Awards.


The Serpentine Pavilion Black Chapel by Theaster Gates is open until 16 October 2022.


figs.i-vi Serpentine Pavilion 2022 designed by Theaster Gates © Theaster Gates Studio. Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy: Serpentine. Theaster Gates. Photograph © Rankin Photography.

publication date
07 October 2022

David Adjaye, Adjaye Associates, Blackness, Chicago, Church, Darkness, Marwa El Mubark,  Theaster Gates, Hyde Park, Inhabitation, Kiln, Philip Larkin, London, Loss, Movement, Oculus, Ritual, Sacred, Serpentine Gallery, Serpentine Pavilion, Shadow, Temple, Timber


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