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1995 November: Chapel, Steven Holl Architects (Seattle, USA)

[ARCHIVE] Steven Holl’s Jesuit chapel fuses geometry, light and colour to create an articulate symbol of spiritual intent

Steven HolI’s work has always been marked by a dynamic modesty, an apparent simplicity around which an agenda of space, proportion and language is intensively explored. His current proposal for the 600 sq m Jesuit Chapel of St Ignatius starts from a well-mannered premise as to site and perimeter condition, then springs into architectural life as interior volumes rise up to catch the natural light and emit, on winter evenings, a carefully calibrated glow.

Model of the new chapel which continues Holl's current interest in warped geometries

Model of the new chapel which continues Holl’s current interest in warped geometries

HolI’s roofscape of zinc-Clad vessels should prove to be an unusually articulate symbol of spiritual purpose. The campus of Seattle University spreads on a plain orthogonal grid picked up from the surrounding city, but reverses the figure-ground arrangement so that stereometric freestanding buildings typically face each other across rectangles of grass.

Holl’s scheme is primarily a pavilion within the collegiate matrix, yet it also expands to inhabit the co-ordinates of its entire site. The chapel is signalled and pinned by a slim concrete bell tower in the south-east corner of its extruded plinth. Entry is alongside a reflecting pool, an excavated rectangle within the larger geometric field of the ground plane.

Model of the interior showing how the spaces will be infused with colour

Model of the interior showing how the spaces will be infused with colour

It is in the vertical volumes of the roof that the architecture becomes impressively original. Each element of the Roman Catholic liturgy has been identified by HolI and made explicit by its specific enclosure. Four walls of in-situ concrete provide a box from which billowing rotund forms erupt, each individually tuned to the ritual below.

Holl conceived of his proposal as ‘bottles of light’. His earliest water-colour sketches show a Morandi-like group of dull coloured (possibly wine) bottles where similarity and difference are in formal play. The developed design pushes its vocabulary of chopped metal roofs and geometrically glazed panels to beckon south towards the students and north into the city fabric.

Watercolour of the interior

Watercolour of the interior

Physically, the segments of roof will be constructed from curved tubular steel - a framing system previously tested at Holl’s Stretto House in Dallas - with plastered ceilings and walls, and a polished concrete floor. Programmatically, the first hovering volumes correspond to a ramped processional way and adjacent narthex; the principal and sole east-west volume corresponds to the altar and congregational seating.

Smaller bonnets mark the surrounding side-chapels, choir and confessional booth. Experientially, the space is at once homogenous and varied. The interior pops up in changing pockets of light and space. The architecture is ideologically non-unifocal and requires movement through it to be comprehended. The daily path of the sun and Seattle’s weather should make for enlivening kinetic intervention. But Holl not only relies upon unfiltered daylight; the Chapel of St Ignatius is to be infused with colour.

Model of the bell tower and reflecting pool

Model of the bell tower and reflecting pool

Initially subdivided into panels of varying transparencies, the notched corner windows of the principal volume and the periscope-like oculi of the subsidiary spaces will have inserts of vividly pigmented cast glass. Tested this summer at Seattle’s renowned Pilchuck Glass School, these lenses will in turn bounce light off panels suspended within the chapel’s envelope, panels whose outer (i.e. invisible) surface will be painted in brilliant complementary colours.

Section through the volumes indicates the play of light

Section through the volumes indicates the play of light

Thus the interior promenade proceeds from natural light into a nave with contrasting seepage of yellow and blue; an orange field with purple lens above the side chapel, a green field with red lens in the choir, and purple field against an orange lens for the confessional. Holl has manipulated the college’s brief to produce a work of rich plasticity, where his current interest in warped geometries promises to provide an intriguingly sensual environment.


Architect Steven Holl Architects, New York, USA
Project team Steven HolI, Tim Bade, Justin Korhammer, Jan Kinsbergen
Associate architect Olson/Sundberg
Project team Rick Sundberg, Tom Kundig

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