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ARCHITECTURE REVIEW

Mystic Meets Modern

Steven Holl's Chapel of Saint Ignatius in Seattle creates a sense of community within and outside its walls.

March 30, 1997|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

SEATTLE — Architects today tinker with theory, not the spirit. But Steven Holl's Chapel of Saint Ignatius, perched on the dreary urban hills above the city, delicately suggests a modern take on a primitive mysticism.

The diminutive 6,100-square-foot chapel sits between a parking lot and a nondescript pedestrian road on the Seattle University campus, a 5,800-student Jesuit college just east of downtown. Once it is consecrated on April 6, the chapel will have two missions: to provide a sanctuary for students and to give shape to the bland eastern edge of the campus. It is an ambitious role for a tiny structure.

In his design, the 49-year-old Seattle-born architect has drawn from the legacy of other Modernist architects, who have designed great religious structures despite the movement's secular bent. Holl's chapel ranks among the greatest of these works.

Holl, who is now based in New York, has long been obsessed with the mystical. His architecture at times seems to be a battle against the facile, the known, the slick. It evokes a childlike curiosity with the making of things--not the ease of the virtuoso. Light, water, structure are the fundamental components of his work.

In his early projects, those elements were often forged into an awkward poetry. A Martha's Vineyard beach house he designed in 1984 is a long, simple box set in windblown reeds overlooking a beach. That shell is enclosed in a repetitive wood frame--as if someone had pulled out its bones and gently reassembled them on the outside. Holl was influenced by a story in "Moby-Dick"--the novel recounts how local Indians used whale skeletons for shelter. The house's exposed frame echoes that primal image.

But the Chapel of Saint Ignatius is the first time Holl has been able to engage his mystical interests directly. The design is a fusion of two worlds that seemingly pull in opposite directions--the elusive abstraction of the light and the sinking heaviness of the forms. Both are intertwined in a tremulous union, like Cupid and Psyche's illicit embraces.

The chapel's plan, in fact, is a simple rectangle. A shallow reflecting pool stretches out from the main facade, punctuated by the zinc-clad bell tower. Beyond that is an empty square, a gently rising mound covered with grass. Along the chapel's flank, a once-empty lot becomes another grassy quadrangle. Each of these urban blocks gives form to what will soon become the second major axis across the campus.

That simple geometry is elegantly reflected in the composition of the facade. The church's thick Alaskan cedar door--pierced by oval openings of colored glass--is set in the corner, bordering the main axis road. Above, the largest of the six lighting towers looms over the door, a small needle-like cross perched on top. The effect is to draw the eye along this axis, to pull you into the world of the spirit, while allowing the road to slip by.

The idea is to extend the tranquillity of the church deep into the landscape. But the reverse happens as well: The curved light towers that rise out of the top of the chapel draw you in. Squat and silvery in the gray Seattle light, each seems to tilt off mischievously in its own direction, as if beckoning to the passerby. By extending the chapel's presence beyond the boundaries of the campus, Holl has created more than a private sanctuary--he has bridged the spiritual and the everyday.

At night, the church structure dissolves into the darkness, leaving visible only floating rectangles of colored glass--big green, red and blue rectangles--that hover at odd angles in the blackness. The effect is especially powerful above the entry, where a vertical plane of white light floats above the main pedestrian road--a wonderful spiritual beacon.

The tension in the design comes from the overt expression of the construction methods. The building's shell is formed of 30-foot-tall cast-on-site concrete slabs, one weighing as much as 77,000 pounds. Each slab was raised into place using a heavy crane, then the slabs were locked together to form a rigid box. To preserve the memory of the construction, Holl carefully revealed the seals between the panels and articulated the hook points with brass oval plates.

Tilt-up concrete construction has been used before--notably by Rudolph Schindler at his 1922 King's Road House. But there, the slabs were designed to be lifted into place by two men with a rope, according to an ideal of man building his own shelter, like a primitive hut. Here, the image recalls a barn raising. The process of assembling the building took just one day.

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