Not Conducive to God
A Post-Occupancy Evaluation of the Chapel of St. Ignatius
To help their simpleminded readers understand the essence of Steven Holl's genius, Time magazine, which distinguished Holl as one of "America's Best Artists and Entertainers" in 2001, offered this remarkable analogy: "Just as the Moors cultivated the trickle of water everywhere in their desert palaces, Holl, who grew up in the cloudy Pacific Northwest, designs buildings that cherish and supervise every sunbeam." What an honor it is for the practical and plain Northwesterner to stand, in the same sentence, next to a lusty and mystical Moor. A sentence can bring all sorts of people together.
Time magazine has more to say about light and Holl: "Light gathers in the alcoves of Holl's Bellevue Art Museum in Washington State. It sweeps across the arcs of his Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki. It pulses through colored glass in his Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle, a building he once described as 'seven bottles of light in a stone box.'" The last building mentioned in this short list, the Chapel of St. Ignatius—Holl's first major work in the Northwest, on the grounds of Seattle University—turns 10 on April 6. In front of its concrete façade is a shallow rectangular pool that reflects the chapel's moods, and a bell tower that hangs a cross by the neck, a parking lot, and a complex of brick buildings.
Seattle's Central Library, which Holl would have designed if Rem Koolhaas had never been born (they were the two final competitors for the commission), is another local and famous building that recently celebrated a birthday—its third, on March 23. To mark the occasion, Seattle Post-Intelligencer's architecture critic, Lawrence Cheek, gave the library a second look. His first, in 2005, resulted in a heap of praise: "Our natural habitat has become steel, glass, concrete and enterprise; therefore, let us rejoice." On reconsideration, on March 27, he declared, "A mistake has been made." Cheek's "post-occupancy evaluation" determined that the library, "incredibly, is an uncomfortable place to read.... It's not conducive to intimacy with a book."
In the spirit of a sober second look, a look that wants to see if the building is doing what it's supposed to be doing, I shall reevaluate the 10-year-old Chapel of St. Ignatius. At the end of the day, when the hype and smoke of aesthetic debates have cleared, is this the best place to pray, to be intimate with God, in the way that Cheek believes the ideal function of the library is to be intimate with a book in a building that's in the middle of a city with nearly 600,000 people in its immediate area and 4 million in its metropolitan area?
This is what it all comes down to: Can a God-fearing man who needs a moment with his perpetually man-mad God kneel in this chapel and feel the Lord's presence? If the chapel fails to establish an air-thin link between man and God, to facilitate this most delicate of correspondences, then it has altogether failed as a building.
I believe that it's hard, if not impossible, for God to hear the prayers in the Chapel of St. Ignatius. When you are in the Chapel of St. Ignatius, it's hard to pray because prayer is supposed to be done with closed eyes but all one wants to do is look at the pretty lights pouring through skylights and colored windows, particularly the blue one above the altar and the cross that hangs Jesus. There hasn't been a time that I have entered the chapel and felt the seriousness of God; what I notice are the play of light, the curves, the crazy-looking tree growing out of the floor in the Reconciliation Chapel. The space is too complex for God, too designed for His simple presence. God is simple, he is just one thing, one All, and all you need to praise His oneness is a clearing, a direct space of worship. As at Ronchamp, the architect, not God, is worshiped in this box with bottles of light.
The building is not about Him, but about its architect, Steven Holl, who lives in New York City.