CHS Schemata: Capitol Hill’s — and, therefore, Seattle’s — best building

Exceptional works of art are a rare and treasured asset to the community. Exceptional architectural works are perhaps even rarer, as the uniting of the client’s needs, the architect’s vision, and the monies available to execute a design present an alignment of three often competing forces. Evoking both intellectual and emotional responses, exceptional architecture not only pushes the boundaries of a particular time or place’s qualities, but also inspires both hemispheres of the mind: the logical (structural/functional) and the artistic (beautiful/sensual). Capitol Hill is extremely fortunate to have such an exceptional architectural work, as it is not only world class but is also welcoming to the community. I write of the Chapel of Saint Ignatius  designed by internationally acclaimed New York (and Bremerton born) architect Steven Holl, on the Seattle University Campus. If you have yet to visit it I strongly encourage you to do so.

As an architect, I often visit or see photographs of a building and think to myself “hmm, if the architect had done this or that, the building would have really been great (or at least pretty good)”. Even with such internationally lauded structures such as Seattle’s Central Library, I have such musings. With the Chapel, no presumption is possible. It is as close to a perfectly conceived, designed, and executed building you are likely to see anywhere, of any design approach, of any program, of any budget or size. Yes, it is that good, and it is right in our back yard.

The construction of the Chapel consists of tilt-up concrete for the walls and (what I assume to be) light-weight metal framing and zinc siding for the skylights. Tilt-up concrete’s typical use is for the construction of warehouses and industrial buildings, where it is utilized as simple, economically produced rectangular planes that are butted up one against another, providing both structure and enclosure. With the Chapel, the tilt-up panels are planar, yet have a fluid perimeter giving form to the many skylights. The zinc-clad infill framing forms both the curved  and flat planes between the tilt-up bookends. Additionally, the panels have over-lapping seams at the corners and the window openings, instead of being butt-jointed, furthering the expressive and probing design approach of the tilt-up; and, rather than being painted, the panels are stained with an integrated color giving them a deep, sensuous texture. While certainly more expensive and far more creative than a typical application, the tilt-up still remains within the traditional performance characteristics of a planar based, support and enclosure system.

The Entry Wall

I am hard pressed to think of another building that handles daylight in a more magical way than at the Chapel, where soaring skylights, cast glass windows, and concealed openings create mystery and beauty. Daylight is formed, not merely admitted into the space, and is bent by the will of the architect to support his concepts of space and place. Oftentimes screened, the contrast, the shadows, and the filtering of daylight that surrounds you is perhaps the building’s most intense experience, and unlike one you are likely to have anywhere else.


Cast Glass Window in Entry Wall

The boldness of the building’s exterior forms and materials are deftly balanced by an interior of subtle textures, which are skillfully manipulated by the above mentioned daylight. The cross-hatch patterning of the plaster walls, the cast glass windows with their random air bubbles and changes in hue, and the splendid, hand chiseled entry doors immerse one in a sensual world of material splendor. Seven hundred pounds of candle wax form the finish of the Sacristy, creating an otherworldly environment.

The Sacristy

Candle-Wax Walls

The spatial quality of the Chapel is as exceptional as any of the above attributes. The curved planes of the ceiling, the light shrouds, and the skylights create the seemingly disparate qualities of intimacy and vastness. The repetitive planes, when seen assemble in perspective, layer the overall Chapel space, creating both extension and containment.

Looking South Toward the Lobby from the Main Chapel


The Confessional

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Interior View Northwest

The evaluation and experience of art and architecture is of course personal. And while checklists can be seen as arbitrary or even naive when forming an opinion of a work of art – especially one that breaks ground in the many refreshing ways as does the Chapel — I cannot help but think that the Chapel is one of those few buildings that so completely fills out my own list.


John Feit is an architect on Capitol Hill, and works at Schemata Workshop. He blogs frequently on design and urbanism, with a focus on how they relate to and effect the Capitol Hill community.

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23 thoughts on “CHS Schemata: Capitol Hill’s — and, therefore, Seattle’s — best building

  1. I walked in there not knowing what to expect and it made me feel like I had crazy for brains. There should be more places like this.

  2. This building has amazed me ever since I moved to seattle. It is almost more of an art piece than a building. Maybe I should attend mass here… Almost gets me started.

  3. The chapel is lovely, and I go out of my way several times a week to pass it on my to or from work. I have yet to go inside, so I really appreciate the pictures!

  4. What a wonderfully written feature, John! The Chapel is truly one of the most unique and beautiful buildings in Seattle and in the US. It’s nice to see it get that recognition. Great pictures!

  5. Not to be nitpicky, but if we’re doing the Wikipedia route it’s technically Cherry Hill: First Hill’s eastern boundary is often set as Broadway, but the chapel sits right off 12th (,_Seattle,_Washingto). It’s even mentioned as a landmark for the neighborhood in the entry. I live right nearby and enjoy figuring out how to technically refer to my ‘hood, which seems to be at this odd locus of edges between the two Hills and the CD in terms of most people’s minds….

    But I myself appreciate that the CHS blog is broader in spirit than the “technical” neighborhood boundaries.

  6. I photographed this building when it was new for some publications and the architect. I submitted the photos to (ironically named) “Modern Liturgy” which frequently publishes photos of remodeled or new churches. They wrote back saying… “… the photographs are beautiful, but we would NEVER publish this building…”

    So “modern” cuts off for them about 1024AD maybe?

    Anyway, this article misses some key points (esp for the odd mix of BW and color photos). At solstice and equinox the lights make specific patterns and move across the walls in designed patterns. It’s worth the trip.

  7. Yeah, this is technically the 12th Ave Urban Village, which is part of the Central Area and is in the Central Area plan. A lot like your neck of the woods Andrew – always referred to as Cap hill but “officially” at least by the City part of another neighborhood’s plan. Bill Zosel will attest to this. Broadway is the general dividing line between First hill and the Central Area south of Madison.

  8. is hearing or sharing Compline Services in the Chapel with the Tallis Scholars, which is about to happen for several evenings. Check it out! Extraordinary music in an extraordinary place.

  9. It’s not really about what the city says is a border or groups define as economic zones etc. but how people affiliate mixed with our own coverage resources.

    I also run after my business partner who lives in the area re-focused his work and had to leave day-to-day operations of the site. I have bona fide CD-er Tom to help me out. We’ve had to be strategic about how we cover things and the Central District coverage area has a lot of neighborhoods to the south and to the east toward the lake that need attention. So, you’ll see coverage on CHS of 12th pretty much all the way south to Jefferson. Is that Capitol Hill? City maps and economic zones etc. say no. But you’ll notice we also are busy on First Hill sometimes these days. It’s an area of influence, I guess.

    I’ll probably put a map together outlining the coverage areas but I know as soon as I do there will be exceptions and fuzziness to explain. Or not.

  10. I hate to break it to you but what you titled the “sacristy” is not actually the sacristy. The sacristy is where the priest’s vestments are. What is pictured is the sanctuary where the tabernacle is held.

  11. The photo labeled “Sacristy” is actually the “Blessed Sacrament Chapel.” The space is home to the tabernacle, or place where the blessed Eucharist is kept in reservation for the sick, etc. Otherwise, really great! Thanks so much for visiting St. Ignatius, John!

    Nick Coffman

  12. @jseattle, keep up the coverage of areas like First Hill and the northern edges of the CD (and 12th Avenue Urban Village, if that’s indeed the way to refer to it).

    Many of us live just outside of the edges of Capitol Hill proper but spend lots of our time in it, whether running errands, eating, or working. I definitely read your partner site, but frankly just don’t spend much time there: socially, Capitol Hill is my home even if it isn’t my address. (And I frankly think it’s a bit silly for people to worry too much about where the boundaries are, other than for referral purposes.)

  13. Thanks, Nick! Obviously, a mistake on my part. I knew it began with an ‘S’ . . . . And thank to Seattle U for sharing the Chapel with the world!

  14. I visited this beautiful building soon after it opened, even though I was living in Oakland, California at the time. I’ve been back many time since then and it never fails to restore my faith in the power of good architecture and the connection that it can make with our spirt. I’ve taken several non-design professionals with me and they too have been impressed and inspired.
    This is a sketch from a visit in 1998:

  15. A Catholic church or chapel is meant to be built with the sacred Liturgy in mind, this crazy shapes building conveys very little meaning in relation to the Christian faith. It strains towards being spare, modern, irregular and disorienting, but not to be a fitting context for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, a place for the sacred mysteries, revealing what is hidden through sacred art. But this is just formless and strange, like so much modern art.

  16. Yes a “sacristy” is a separate room (always with a door that locks) where liturgical vessels, linens, vestments etc are kept. Actually “sanctuary” refers to the altar area which is set off from the man body of the Church, the space within which the priest celebrates Mass. The tabernacle is supposed to be in a prominent, visible and dignified place so the Blessed Sacrament can be adored, not in a side nook decorated with a bare tree. Normally the tabernacle would be directly behind the altar, at the front of the Church (Jesus belongs at the head of the Church), less commonly off to the side a bit but still in front in a prominent place of honor.