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.
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.
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 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.
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.