chapel of saint ignatius, steven holl

Designed by Steven Holl, the Chapel of Saint Ignatius was conceived as “…seven bottles of light in a stone box…” in reference to San Ignacio de Loyola’s vision of a spiritual life comprised of darkness and light, which he referred as consolations and desolations.

The chapel was built in 1997 and it is located in the campus of Seattle University in First Hill, Downtown Seattle. The main structure of the chapel was erected in twelve hours due to the use of tilt-up concrete walls. Such method of tilt-up construction is traditionally used where the repetition and mass production of panels guarantee speed, therefore cost-effectiveness. In contrast, every panel used at the chapel is unique. Each pre-cast concrete wall (“stone box”) has a distinct profile designed to interlock in order to form slits that let in natural light. In addition, the walls provide distinctive profiles from where a lightweight construction roof curves and contorts to form skylights (bottles of light) that allow in additional natural light. The light entering through the slits and skylights is filtrated by a mix of colored, translucent and transparent glass and it does not enter directly into the space. Curving walls serve as baffles where light bounce off. Each baffle has a complementary color to the color of the glass. The reflected light gets redirected towards the walls in a subtle — yet intense — way. All interior walls have been finished with a textured plaster and what seems at first as an odd design decision, once bathed in light, becomes clear to the keen observer.

The sketches below record my first two visits to the chapel. It was raining during my first visit so I could not experience the incidence of natural light entering through the skylights. On the second visit, however, the experience was completely different. When the reflected colored natural light structs the rugged texture of the interior plaster, it creates an optical illusion. Father Gerald T. Cobb S.J. refers to the light that enters the chapel as “…light that acts like liquid, an aqueous medium spilling across interior surfaces.” In truth, it is a difficult effect to describe but the chapel interiors bathed in light give a sense as if inhabiting a watercolor.

Steven Holl’s pursuit for phenomenological occurrences is well known. In his essay A Gathering of Different Lights he mentions “… to feel these physicalities is to become a subject of the senses.” Furthermore, he adds that… “an awareness of one’s unique existence in space is essential in developing a consciousness of perception.”

Entrance & Procession; view from the Narthex towards the Baptistry.

Baptistry. Inscribed at the edge of the baptismal font: “No barrier can divide where life unites: one faith, one fount, one spirt, makes one people.”

Main Sanctuary (view from baptistry)

Main Sanctuary (towards the altar)

Main Sanctuary (view from the altar)

Choir (looking towards the Main Sanctuary)

Processional corridor/Entrance

Holl assures us that “architecture holds the power to inspire and transform our day-to-day existence.” And while I do not claim that my sketches illustrate the phenomenon I experienced, they certainly give a sense of the spatial quality of the chapel. In fact, in my opinion, having examined Holl’s own watercolors for Saint Ignatius, they also fall short at representing the effect. However, whether intentional or not, the experience is there. Well done Holl.

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