A Chapel in the Tropics Ankit Prabhudessai details his creation of a modern historical chapel in Goa

“The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own, we have no soul of our own civilization.” 

– Frank Lloyd Wright

How can we culturally, climatically and historically root the chapel firmly to the place it is being built at and yet make all generations of society relate to it? This was one of the major questions we dealt with to come up with a design for the St. Francis Xavier Chapel located at the heart of the coastal state of Goa in India.

A Portuguese colony for more than 400 years, Goa has had a rich cultural exchange of ideas from all over the world. It was extremely important for us to study the centuries-old churches, which have been landmarks in every village in Goa. Most importantly, the Basilica Ankit Every component of all these churches was in conjunction with the Golden Ratio
of Bom Jesus and Se Cathedral in Old Goa that house the relics of St. Francis Xavier.

Measured drawings of at least 20 landmark churches all over Goa were carried out to study the scale and proportions of the main façade along with the plans. One of the most interesting aspects that we noted was that every component of all these churches was in conjunction with the Golden Ratio that was developed by the famed 15th-century artist Leonardo Da Vinci.

     “The style of Goan churches had sought to restore that of imperial Rome and can be identified as Neo-Roman.” – Pereira, J. (2002), Churches of Goa. On the other hand, the Goan houses of the past that we studied encapsulated the vernacular arts, crafts and local climatic conditions within their design.

  We wanted to create an alchemy of this past

and present by working on a design solution  that reflects the local tropical climate that prevailing in Goa. It was important for us to synthesise different design elements of the churches and houses that have prevailed as landmarks over centuries and also be in sync  with current trends.

Along the main entry spine that leads to Margao, the commercial capital of Goa, the chapel is set under a large canopied copper  pod tree. A tropical stage is set up for the chapel by placing it amidst a line of Heliconia,  Alpinia, Hibiscus and Chamaedorea plants on both the sides and coconut, betel nut and areca palms at the rear with rough undulated kotah stone interspersed with green grass in  the surrounding setback.

Beauty according to Alberti, is an inherent harmony in the building, which can be detected by the chief characteristic idea of maintaining a uniform system of proportion throughout  the building (Wittkower, R. - 1940).

The plan, as well as the main façade of the chapel, is designed keeping in mind the principle of the golden ratio. The dimensions thus, correlate to each other. Each element of the façade has been brought together by an understanding of its locale while respecting the tradition and pre-existing history spanning more than four centuries.

The main façade is composed of three bays characterised by four pilasters supporting a storey above. The left and right end columns are composed of a scotia at the base.

The middle two coupled pilasters are composed of a heavy rectangular pedestal supporting the arched pediment with a belfry niche at the apex. A custom-designed lattice screen evolved from the classic rose window occupies the space between the pediment and the middle pilasters. These see-through concrete screens replace the traditional oculus, which adorns most of the churches and chapels in Goa.

A fern-edged Rococo-style inspired scroll connects the finials with the pilasters enclosing the concrete screens. The bell at the apex is locally made in brass and hung on the seasoned teak wood headstock with coir rope. The main entrance arched door in the centre is embellished with a semi-circular shell carving on the top with a wood-panelled double door at the bottom. The shell carving is inspired by the marine life predominant on the coastline of Goa and the gold-painted dove motif symbolises peace and harmony. The door is divided into three parts with raised wood panelling in the first and last and clear glass in the middle. This transparency allows any visitor to worship even during late hours.

The roof of the chapel is finished with the traditional handmade terracotta tiles that slope at an angle suited to drain out the heavy monsoon rains that are prevalent in Goa. The water from the roof is drained out into a water channel, which is externally plastered with a customdesigned cornice. This cornice encapsulates  and connects the main façade to the sides as well as the rear.

A bottom-lit cantilevered plinth slab supports an array of exposed laterite stone fins interspersed with openable powder-coated aluminium windows that join the corniced water channel at the roof level. These partially translucent and openable fins help in cross ventilation and create an alluring composition  of shadows internally.

Dark matt-finished teak wood and a glass  door adorning the front façade gives the first glimpse of the main altar to the visitor. This  altar is made up of a backlit crucifix on a smooth white plastered wall composed of locally available coconut wood and a painted statue of Lord Jesus made by local artisans.


The darkness of the wood in contrast with the smooth white wall combined with the skiagraphy created by the side fins renders a surreal demeanour to the internal chapel space. Wooden pews embedded with handmade azulejo tiles adorn either side of the aisle.

The façade is painted with a greyish-beige tone that complements the redness of the exposed laterite and the greens of the tropical plants in the surroundings. Internally, the light-gold finish, natural marble stone sets the tone for the dark wood pews and exposed laterite fins.

For generations together, our ancestors have left behind a rich architectural history through
magnificent structures. This chapel was our humble attempt to create something that the current and future generations could be proud of and one that reflects not only the past but also the present and shows a direction towards a sustainable future.