Location Phoenix
Size 2,500 ft² (chapel), 2,000 ft² (support building)
Completed 2007
Program Christian prayer chapel

This article is part of gb&d‘s Green Typologies series, Places of Worship: Contemporary Religious Design in America

When it comes to building churches, contemporary American Christianity often eschews flourish for function. However, the Prayer Pavilion of Light, by DeBartolo Architects for the 9,600-member Phoenix First Assembly Church is both modern and meditative. It uses experiential landscape design and holistic lighting strategies to create what the congregation calls a ‘lantern on the hill’ in the heart of the Valley of the Sun.

“When we were designing the building, the client asked us to imagine the chapel as a lantern on a hill,” says principal Jack DeBartolo III, who collaborated with his father, Jack Jr., on the design. “With a Noguchi lantern as inspiration, we began to think about this idea of creating a chapel that could literally be shaded by glass but also use the glass as a source of illumination for both interior and exterior experiences.”

At night, the glass pavilion at Phoenix First Assembly Church is illuminated by hundreds of LED fixtures mounted between the double skins. The ‘lantern’ changes color when lit, creating a different environment for each shade.

As a place for reflection and contemplation, the 2,500-square-foot pavilion was designed for a Christian tradition that specifically elevates the experience of praying, so the architects treated the walk to and from the pavilion as an ambulatory representation of the practice of prayer. The cubical glass pavilion is located on the southeastern portion of the megachurch’s 65-acre campus that sits at the base of a large desert mountain preserve. The pavilion uses its elevated position on the side of Stoney Mountain to overlook the church campus and the sprawling city skyline. “When we were designing this building,” DeBartolo says, “we were really thinking about the movement of people on the campus relative to the way people really experience the different ministries available to them.”

The pavilion was the fourth and final installment of DeBartolo Architects’ four-phase master plan, which included the construction of an early childhood education center in 2000, a Youth Pavilion two years later, and a Children’s Pavilion in 2004. All are located on the southern end of the church campus, leading visitors toward the prayer pavilion on a path that begins between the Youth and Children’s pavilions. The gently inclining, 600-foot-long processional path winds through a hillside landscape designed by landscape architect Michael Boucher and planted with native Sonoran flora.


Architect DeBartolo Architects
Client Phoenix First Assembly Church
General Contractor Arthur Porter Construction
Lighting Roger Smith Lighting Design
Landscape Michael Boucher Landscape Architect

The path rises 28 feet from the garden entrance to the chapel mount where visitors are then welcomed into a courtyard with benches, shade trees, and a 70-foot-long black reflection pool bordering the plaza’s eastern edge. A ceremonial flame burning in the center of the pool glimmers off the water’s glassy surface that also reflects the 50-foot-high steel cross rising from the pool.

Although glass structures are rarely ideal for desert architecture, in order to achieve the ‘paper lantern’ experience, DeBartolo saw that an element of transparency was needed. To achieve the dual functions of glass working as a shade and as a source of light, DeBartolo says the team experimented with various louvers and perforated scrims but decided on the idea of shading the glass with glass.

The glass cube is thus formed in a double façade; the inner enclosure comprises triple-paned glass panels supported by the chapel’s structural Vierendeel truss sides and is separated by a five-foot air gap from the outer laminated fritted-glass enclosure. Aside from creating an enveloping thermal chimney, the space between the glass walls provides ample daylighting while also housing Roger Smith Lighting Design’s color-changing LED bands, which light the building interior and exterior at night. The night-lighting is a literal polychromatic ‘lantern on a hill.’ “We wanted to create a building that was highly controllable in terms of light,” DeBartolo says. “We were inspired by how James Turrell uses light—using it to colorize a building through imperceptibly slow color changes.”

The chapel, which seats 250 and is open 24 hours a day, year-round, welcomes visitors from its western side with ceremonial bronze doors, and the northern, eastern, and southern portions also fully open via stacking and sliding glass doors to surrounding courtyards such that, from a distance, the structure appears to be floating.

“With a Noguchi lantern as inspiration, we began to think about this idea of creating a chapel that could literally be shaded by glass but also use the glass as a source of illumination for both interior and exterior experiences.” Jack DeBartolo III, DeBartolo Architects


Certification Not applicable
Site Located on rehabilitated site
Exterior Doubled-glass skin to create thermal chimney, shading
Landscape Local and native flora
Light 100% daylighting, LED lighting at night
HVAC Efficient system delivered underground for cooling

Further reinforcing the separation of sacred from service, DeBartolo located the chapel’s restroom, mechanical, and administrative needs in an adjacent 2,000-square-foot rectangular concrete structure. Informed by an architectural tour of Europe and the work of Peter Zumthor, DeBartolo and his father saw how separating these functions complemented the sacrosanct nature of the chapel. “The word ‘sacred’ literally means ‘set apart,’ and we saw this project as an opportunity to separate the pragmatic elements from the chapel itself,” DeBartolo says. “The chapel is a single-use room, and we’ve connected it to an elegant support building that has a dialogue with the chapel.” This dialogue occurs through the connection of the HVAC and mechanical services, which join the adjacent structure and all of its equipment to the chapel via insulated underground ductwork.

“These practical elements always challenge the idea of making a sacred space,” DeBartolo says. “This site was really unique because it gave us space and the opportunity to literally pull those programmatic needs outside of the building.”

The pavilion foregoes the need for an interior lobby—and additional square footage—by treating the courtyards as a type of outdoor lobby, creating less distinction between interior and exterior spaces and increasing the experience of the prayerful instant. “Phoenix First Assembly, as a Christian church, doesn’t want to elevate a building to any other quality beyond being just a building,” DeBartolo says, “but at the same time, it has given them a place they never thought they would have.”

If the American inheritors of the Protestant legacy have lost anything from their Catholic forebears, it is the idea of architecture as a type of prayer, meaning that the connection between creator and created was excluded. Through its innovative use of light, landscape, and location, the Prayer Pavilion of Light promotes a sensory experience that integrates the physical and spiritual as well as interior and exterior spaces.

This article is part of gb&d‘s Green Typologies series, which in each issue explores a single type of building. For more of our most recent collection, Places of Worship: Contemporary Religious Design in America, choose from the list below. 

Cathedral of Christ the Light, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

• Green Mosque Proposal, Faith in Place

• St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church, Marlon Blackwell Architect

• Westchester Reform Temple, Rogers Marvel Architects