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Seattle University


Top Honor

Written by Mike Thee
December 13, 2011

Steven Holl, the mastermind behind Seattle University’s highly acclaimed chapel, has received the American Institute of Architects’ 2012 Gold Medal. The medal is one of the most prestigious awards given to architects, with its previous recipients including Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Ieoh Ming Pei and Frank Lloyd Wright.  

Built in 1997, the Chapel of St. Ignatius was immediately welcomed as Seattle University’s spiritual heart and has come to be a popular destination for visitors interested in joining the campus community in worship or simply marveling at its beauty.  

Holl designed the chapel as "seven bottles of light in a stone box,” which produces a variety of striking illuminations throughout the day. The space channels an appearance and disappearance of natural light that represents the concept of consolation and desolation, a key element of Ignatian spirituality. 

The Bremerton-born Holl received an honorary doctoral degree at Seattle University’s undergraduate commencement ceremony in 2006. His plans for chapel are part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

The chapel marks its 15th anniversary in 2012, and as part of the celebration, couples who were married there will renew their vows. The sacred space has drawn numerous accolades over the years. A 2006 New York Times article identified the chapel as one of 11 destinations visitors should include during their time in Seattle, and in 2007 the San Francisco Chronicle called it “One of Seattle’s great and least publicized architectural treasures.” More recently, Bloomberg News architectural James S. Russell recently hailed the chapel as “a humble and sublimely spiritual place” in his Dec. 12 column. (Visit Seattle’s best building and Seattle Sketcher for more rave reviews that have come the chapel’s way in recent years.) 

For more information on Holl’s award and some of his other projects, visit AIA

Rewind and review…

Jerry Cobb, S.J., currently provincial assistant for formation and the provincial assistant for higher education for the Oregon Province, chaired the planning committee that hired Holl and supervised the design and construction of the chapel. As the chapel celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2007, Father Cobb shared his thoughts with Broadway & Madison, the printed faculty and staff newsletter that preceded The Commons. Excerpts from the interview follow. 

Broadway & Madison:  What’s something the average faculty or staff member might not know about the chapel? 

Father Cobb:  Non-Catholics might be consoled to know that in 1995 we asked Steven Holl to design a chapel that would be “engaging for people of all faiths or no faith or faith-under-crisis.” The poet Rilke once advised that when people disappoint you, you should turn to nature because nature will not disappoint you, and I feel something similar about the Catholic Church. When it disappoints you, which is likely to be every day, you can turn to places such as the chapel where God’s saving presence seems tangible and life-giving.  

People also may not know the key design concept for the chapel was “A Gathering of Different Lights.” It’s fun to go in there any day, any time, and try to count how many different kinds of light you can see—the polished flooring is watery-black so it reflects every light source from above. The hand-textured plaster of the walls resembles a painter’s canvas or the raked white sand of a Zen garden, so it shifts constantly with the movement of lights.  

One architecture critic said that the interior curves of the chapel convey a subconscious sense of arms embracing the people in the space. I do think you feel embraced when you are in the chapel, whether it is by solitude, a caring community, or a faith tradition.  

Broadway & Madison:  What moments in the chapel’s first 10 years have been most memorable for you? 

Father Cobb:  Certainly nothing can touch the power of the weddings and the funerals and the baptisms that have taken place in the chapel. Nurses in nearby hospitals send families there for prayer and respite.  

Broadway & Madison: What, for you, has been the most awe-inspiring “gathering of lights” moment in the chapel? 

Father Cobb:  Mid-day in the fall there is a very dramatic streak of sunlight illuminating the crucifix in the chapel—but I also delight in the many “ordinary miracles” of light in the space. Steven Holl said he looked forward to moments when clouds pass outside to create a pulsing of light and shadow in the chapel.  

Broadway & Madison:  Do you have any interesting anecdotes from when the chapel was being conceived or built? 

Father Cobb:  In 1995, we involved SU students in the design process, and Steven Holl came to a Sunday evening mass in the old Campion Chapel to see how students prayed and to hear their views about what kind of chapel they wanted. In the following months, the Chapel Committee members argued at length about everything, but it was a very fruitful discussion, with spectacular results.  

Broadway & Madison:  Complete this sentence: The first time I stepped into the chapel, I thought to myself… 

Father Cobb:  “This is where God will keep office hours.”