Tectonics and the Chapel of St. Ignatius

by Duncan McRoberts, appearing in Volume 1

Our senses are the means by which we receive information. Without them, no information would pass to us; that is to say, there would be no knowledge, intuition or transcendence. It should be noted that in sensation, the corporal emerges as the core of subjective and objective cognition. In terms of architecture, it is our aesthetic apprehension of the corporal that informs us, through our senses, of the cultural value and content of a building. Buildings invariably are signifiers, they reveal, represent, resemble and express. They are, without question, artifacts or physical proponents of larger paradigms.

What and how something is signified, is the most important question for architecture and for any community which builds.

When the Catholic Church intends to build a sacred space, and chooses an architect to conceive of a plan and image for that space, the community should take it very seriously. If, for example, a Modernist architect is asked to actualize the what and how of a sacred space the community should be concerned about how he might articulate their experience of religion and what that experience might be. This is because Modernist architecture, I would submit, lacks a theoretical foundation to create a representational, expressive or metaphorical discourse to signify the wellspring of customs, rituals, sacraments, remembrances, essences, catechisms, symbols, miracles or atmospheres for worship that embody the Catholic faith.

To explain this, it must first be stated that the canon of Orthodox Modernism intends to repudiate history. In order to pursue a negation of truth, the modus operandi of Modernism depends on an aesthetic of representational sterility and tectonic reductionism.

So viewed, Modernism’s denial of historical meaning then, means that it can only claim to lie within a secularist architectural mode. One of the things which Modernism denies Catholicism, is integral to historical religious content: tectonics. Tectonics in architecture has been defined as the poetics of structure. To reveal a poetics of structure is to give back to reality and the set of programmatic, economic and physical rules it gives us, an art form which is essential. An art form, moreover as narrative, that people need and appreciate. Marco Frascari, in his essay “The Tell-the-Tale Detail,” argues that through tectonic detail one can see the process of signification; the attachment of meaning to man-made objects. The narrative and character created by tectonic detail alludes to multi-faceted measures of meaning and is the link that makes the invisible, visible.

Unfortunately, in Modernist architectures preference for tectonic abstraction, there are no elements which can act as a symbolic link to the transubstantive and eschatological content of Catholicism. Modernist architects, in other words, either misunderstand or refuse to use symbolic convention and signification to open communication between existential planes. As an abstraction, it becomes an architecture that forces the Catholic liturgy to occupy an otherwise empty, unknowable place.

The Chapel of St. Ignatius, completed in 1997, was designed to accommodate 250 people. Photo: Author

As an example, let us consider the new chapel of St. Ignatius, by the well-known architect Steven Holl, located on the campus of Seattle University. As a work of orthodox Modernism, none of its architectural characteristics transcend an industrial appearance which seems to mean that technology and its gadgetry actually transcend all other possible representational values. It has no ecclesiastical details, no sacred architectural ornaments or any recognizable tectonic symbolic forms. It abandons all religious architectonic dialectics which have endured the ebb and flow of custom and use, or that touch the deepest layers of history the domain of memory. To a passerby, it appears to be nothing more than a nominal box with light scoops that in the past, illuminated tables of fabricators, technicians, objets-d’art, seam-stresses, or even disco dancers. Furthermore, though the light inside is described as evocative, these light giving scoops, as formal elements, themselves reveal no meaning. Unlike clerestory windows, domes, lanterns or rose windows, they are representationally mute gestures. The name given them doesn’t even have sacred, epistemological or etymological status; or for that matter, an extrinsic, cultural meaning. They are like utensils, literal statements of efficiency. Moreover, the only other notable aspect this structure offers the spiritual being is a material variation of its contrived randomness and wall surface treatment. Thus when compared to hundreds of the intricate forms and rich surfaces of many traditional churches, the supposed genius of this chapel’s forms amounts to very little. Though these variations may, at first glance, be interesting, after time they reveal nothing to us, or rather, nothingness.

The building’s lack of representational possibilities, admits that the technological process of making has become the destination of the building itself, thereby changing the metaphorical province of its program. Holl’s chapel thus refuses to respond to its program by means of religious figuration. Aside from some candles, a tabernacle, the baptismal font, a displaced crucifix, the altar and a kneeler, the building itself offers us a sober and positivistic dialogue with the machine. So viewed, a building devoid of figurative elements and thus reduced to cleverly organized production line functionalism or even composed of novel shapes, bears little didactic presence. Thus, upon apprehension of this building from both within and without, our senses respond only to mechanistic metaphors, fundamental to a Modernistic discourse on art, rather than to otherwise religious concepts of transcendence.

Designed by Steven Holl, the 6,100-square-foot chapel was constructed at a cost of $5.2 million. Photo: Author

To conclude, Seattle University seems to have solicited Holl, as a bold player in a game of novelty-seeking, in order to appear progressive. In fact, this building’s appearance seems emblematic of overvaluing the importance of change. For many decades now the Church has chosen the builders of Modernism, which, as Edmund Burke said, “...have no respect for the wisdom of others; but pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste; because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery.”

Meanwhile, what the Church is near losing is the true essence of its inextricable relationship with architecture that keeps what is sacred, sacred. In building this building, the University and the Catholic Church have failed to question what Modernism is unable to express; they have failed to discriminate against what Modernist architecture can only express and they have failed to adequately represent themselves by defining what they can and ought to express. The atmosphere of a chapel is a sacred concept in itself. It is an atmosphere that deserves great depth of thought, and requires great care in its making. So stated, it is very odd over the past decades that the Catholic Church would forsake the architecture it has grown up with for one which has no articulate theory of universals, ideals or beauty. Perhaps a reconsideration of the tectonic in expressing these ideals will lead us forward to the realization of a chapel as sacred place.