Images by John Hook

“Architecture is a visual art, and the buildings speak for themselves,” the pioneering architect Julia Morgan once said. Which is true, but buildings can be lost in translation, too, becoming as unintelligible as an ancient dialect. Thurston Memorial Chapel, which sits at the center of the Punahou School campus in Honolulu, speaks as fluently—and as radically—as it did 50 years ago.

On a recent Monday morning, I found myself in the darkened chapel, its constellations of stained glass glowing in the early morning sun. I had seen the building before, but this time, I noticed details I had missed. The chapel itself—small, square, copper-roofed, visible from across a large, grassy expanse—is striking in its simplicity: white plaster walls adorned with a few bands of stained glass and a small copper cross. At the chapel’s base, a lily pond wraps around the corner of the building like a truncated moat, its dark green color echoing the roof’s patina. Passing under a wooden trellis covered in bougainvillea, I emerge in a quiet courtyard ringed by ferns and shaded by a giant monkeypod tree.

Suddenly, the chapel is different. This side of the roof is clad in brown ceramic tile. Heavy koa wood doors leading inside are inlaid with copper repoussé panels that depict the life of Jesus Christ. The materials are warmer and more inviting. The rest of the campus feels far away.

This arrival sequence is part of the architectural design, carefully choreographed to create a sense of intimacy and quiet. Inside the chapel is the same hushed reverence, despite the myriad fourth and fifth graders that fill the pews, which are arranged in a semicircle around a coral altar. (Founded by missionaries in 1841, Punahou still requires students to attend chapel.) Above the altar hangs a thin, wooden cross, illuminated by a sculptural skylight. Remarkably, there is water inside, too. And fish. The lily pond flows into the chapel beneath a shortened section of the exterior wall.

The service commences like any other: Somber organ music, the lighting of candles. But then, the kids burst into “Hawai‘i Aloha.” Led by a jubilant chaplain with an acoustic guitar, they sing “E hau‘oli e nā ‘ōpio o Hawai‘i nei / ‘Oli ē! ‘Oli ē!” There is a prayer peppered with Hawaiian and several Hawaiian chants, including one that is dedicated to Pele, the fire goddess. It feels somewhat surreal, listening to students sing to a Hawaiian deity in a Christian chapel beneath a cross. After all, not so long ago, missionaries in the islands banned hula and the Hawaiian language.

After the service, the chaplains tell me they want all students, regardless of their religious backgrounds, to feel welcome in Thurston Chapel. As it happens, this was also the intent of its architect: Vladimir Ossipoff. At its dedication in 1967, he said that he hoped students in need of “physical and spiritual shelter will naturally gravitate here, and that having come here, they will find the comforting solace they seek.”

The Russian architect had designed other buildings on the Punahou campus, and he knew that the fan-shaped lily pond near the campus’ center was a place of deep significance. Lined with small stones, the pond is fed by a freshwater spring, which has several legends associated with it. In the most well known, an elderly couple who live beneath an old hala tree find the area plagued by severe famine and drought. In separate dreams, the man and the woman are told to uproot the tree. They do so, and freshwater gushes forth. They call it Kapunahou, or “the new spring.”

When Ossipoff presented his design for the chapel in 1964, it was at once thoughtful and lunatic: The building would sit not just near the lily pond—it would sit in it. “That had to be one of the gutsiest architectural moves,” architect and Punahou graduate Nate Smith tells me. To the school’s trustees, Ossipoff proposed the structure be nestled into the northeast portion of the pond, like a sheer-faced peninsula, the water lapping at its plaster walls like the ocean against chalky white sea cliffs. Inside, the floor would slope down to the altar, bringing students and teachers as close to the spring as possible. The water would even flow directly into the building.

Ossipoff assured the school it could be done. A retaining wall was built across a corner of the pond and the water pumped out. The foundation was carefully sited, so as not to damage the spring. By 1967, the chapel was finished, constructed almost exactly the way Ossipoff had designed it. Fifty years later, Thurston Chapel is still regarded as one of the architect’s best works. But what is perhaps most interesting is that the building, in a way, saved the lily pond.

Living Well Punahou Chapel

Despite irrevocably altering its shape, Thurston Chapel actually reinforced the import of the spring, the water of which, by the 20th century, was being diverted for fountains, irrigation systems, and the school’s first swimming pool. Among the earliest traditions associated with the pond was a “dunking ceremony,” a sort of freshman hazing ritual involving costumes and a parade. And in a 1917 master plan for Punahou, drawings show the lily pond ringed by an imposing stone colonnade, which would have relegated the pond to being a passive feature of the landscape.

Instead, Ossipoff forged a new, more active relationship between the school and the spring, marrying the built and the natural. The chapel building is completely “inextricable from its site and the legend that resides there,” Dean Sakamoto, a Hawai‘i-born architect, wrote in Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff. “It is at once Hawaiian, modern, and timeless.”

Timeless, but also boundless, rooted in something bigger than any one religion. That visitors descend into the chapel, and that the altar sits at the lowest point in the building, make it an anomaly among places of worship. To enter any other church or temple, a person almost always ascends a set of steps. This is practical, in part, but it is also symbolic, distinguishing between the mundane and the sacred, and, in certain faiths, bringing congregants physically closer to God. At Kapunahou, Ossipoff brings occupants closer to the ground. God, he seems to suggest, resides not just in the heavens, but also on the earth.

This ran in our “living well” section, click to read the other stories about Dixie Rose and Jamie Michelle.