Drawing: Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle University: Exterior Concept Study, September 6, 1994. Museum purchase through gift of Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt. 2001-15-1. 

Light Volumes

I grew up next to a large church whose expansive grounds and cemetery became a wonderland in my imagination. However, searching for ghosts and playing a variety of elaborate games of make-believe had nothing on what would happen to the walls of the church at night. Standing outside, the light burst through the stained glass windows, displaying intricate stories in bright colors. As a child, my friends and I would spend what felt like hours making up tales of heroism and basking in the rays of colored lights illuminating the ground around us.

Steven Holl's design for the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University in Seattle, Washington, took this play of light and color to tell a story and lead the congregation in meditation a step further. Integrating what is described on concept sketches as “seven different bottles of light in a stone box” with Jesuit spiritual exercises, colored windows in the undulating roof funnel light into the interior. Each color corresponds with a different aspect of Catholic worship: the processional area, the narthex, choir, east and west naves, blessed sacrament chapel, and reconciliation chapel. During the day, the colors wash their perspective spaces, bathing the interior in color. At night, the light from the church radiates outward, acting as a beacon of colored lights.

Of the space, Steven Holl and Associates has stated: “...[T]the metaphor of light is shaped in different volumes emerging from the roof whose irregularities aim at different qualities of light: East facing, South facing, West and North facing, all gathered together for one united ceremony. Each of the light volumes corresponds to a part of the program of Jesuit Catholic worship. The south-facing light corresponds to the procession, a fundamental part of the mass. The city-facing north light corresponds to the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and to the mission of outreach to the community. The main worship space has a volume of east and west light.”

The planning around the full meditative experience is what creates the beauty of Chapel of St. Ignatius. From the reflective pool in front of the chapel to the color-washed interior concrete walls, Steven Holl and Associates created an integrated experience, beginning with the watercolor concept sketches. In a time of computer drafting and Illustrator, the details created by hand in the concept sketches are telling of the kind of care and consideration that firm took in creating the place of worship, and have become artworks in and of themselves. This concept sketch owned by the Cooper-Hewitt shows the exterior of the building from the side and front view. The intricate planning earned Holl an award from the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Museum Number: 
2001-15-1