Sometimes it is a pleasure just to see a good building. I had such an experience not too long ago when I went to see the chapel that Hodgetts + Fung Design + Architecture designed at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento.
The chapel’s singular moment is where all religious structures come to a point: The place where the congregation focuses on the central ritual, the proclamation of faith, wisdom, and belief. In this case that is the altar, where daylight descends over a crucifix from a clerestory hidden by an ascension in the ceiling. A second slice of windows comes into the wall at an angle, pointing to the same moment of enlightenment to which all eyes in the auditorium turn. A dark cut below the meeting place where the two planes come together hides the entry into a secondary chapel. It has been a long time since I have seen a play of forms and planes in light carried out with more mastery and to better effect—although the detailing and craftsmanship is evidently more commensurate with the construction budget than the design ambition.
The Chapel of the North American Martyrs (named after missionaries to Native Americans who died, so to speak, in the line of duty) is, like much of Hodgetts & Fung’s work, a collection of moves and planes that the architects collected more for the effect it has than for overall coherence (full disclosure: I worked for the firm three decades ago and its principles, Craig Hodgetts, FAIA, and Ming Fung, FAIA, have remained good friends).
In plan, it resembles two or three triangles mashed together around the fan of the main space. From the suburban boulevard it faces, the Chapel is a triangle of concrete panels into which the architects have inserted slices they colored purple and orange and which lead to the hidden sources of light in the two chapels. That plane serves as the front for the jumble of buildings that make up the main school’s campus.
Sitting in the usual sea of parking, the Chapel’s public side organizes and anchors. From the academic side, it invites congregants in past a glass front crisscrossed by structural bracing that recalls images of the Cavalry with its crossed swords and crosses. Colors reappear there as translucent planes that act in the manner of stained glass to enliven the narrow slot of an entry lobby. The structure juts and displays its cuts with an energy that projects a vigorous version of religion from this all-male school.
Inside, the main sanctuary is a broad curve that envelops you with planes painted white and accented with blond wood. The back wall falls apart into curved segments that break up sound, space, and light while reaffirming the central focus on the altar (and recalling the work of Alvar Aalto). Behind that hidden door next to the altar is a dark passage that leads down a few steps to a small chapel where a skylight again lights the crucifix, but now without any interference from the structure’s geometries.
As you move through the building, things come together and fall apart. Religion and light appear in cuts—another crucifix is a negative void in the concrete panels at the entrance, while clerestories and slit windows let light into unexpected places, and hints of spires and naves dissolve into the sweeps and angles of walls.
While we were admiring the building in silence and peace, a jumble of students swept in with the angularity proper to the Chapel, piercing the silence and abstract forms with their hustle and bustle, before lining and calming down, with a slow ebbing of tics and asides, and a warming up with the James Bond theme, into a choir going through its scales and filling the chamber with sounds of faith. The Chapel came into its own then.
You can question the role of religion in our society, and you can wonder about the production of stand-alone buildings that focus solely on a purpose that is so removed from daily life, not to mention the interconnectivity that cuts through our sense of place in such an incessant manner. This little church structure reminded me of the value of making spaces that disengage you from the world around you, without ever truly leaving it, and make you look at something with a clarity and an ephemerality that dissolves the confusion around its walls. Nothing here is pure, but all comes to a point where architecture then disappears into a moment of wonder.