Associate editor Deane Madsen, Assoc. AIA, recently discussed the new Jesuit High School Chapel project with Hodgetts + Fung principals Hsinming Fung, AIA, and Craig Hodgetts, FAIA.I understand this project lasted seven years. Why so long?
Hsinming Fung: There were a couple of factors that delayed the process: One was the acquisition of the land for the project. The second one had to do with the design of a chapel that would have a cross on the roof, which created some outcry from some neighbors from the surrounding area. The project went into hiatus while we had to fight for it and go to community meetings, so it went on hold for a couple of years.
Craig Hodgetts: Of course, when you’re working with eternity and religion, what’s seven years?
How did you start to shape the design and form of the building?
Fung: When we began to develop the design of the project, we presented several ideas to our client, the Rev. Greg Bonfiglio, who was then the president of the high school. One of the things that was challenging for us—but something that Craig and I always get really excited about—was that there was a tension between the volume or the envelope of the building, the mass of the building, and what was going on internally. We developed this very embracing, curved wall. But Father Bonfiglio moved to another parish, and our second client, the Rev. David Suwalsky, had very different ideas, such as how things should be more simple. Coming from St. Louis, he was very taken by the Pulitzer Arts Foundation by Tadao Ando, Hon. FAIA, which he used as an example to explain his understanding of the liturgy.
Hodgetts: It was really interesting, given the tension between the neighbors, which was very self-serving and pragmatic, and the spiritual demands on the other side. It was quite remarkable to have such a bipolar setting for the design because we were constantly pulled back and forth between higher-level and really base-level concerns. For us, it was very stimulating. We weren’t frustrated by it not being a straightforward design process. Every little bit added richness to the final solution.
How did the design develop as you addressed these varying concerns?
Hodgetts: The footprint was pretty much cast in stone because of the environmental impact review process and the pragmatic issues that the neighbors brought up. But at the same time, there was a profound liturgical change between Father Bonfiglio and Father Suwalsky. So going from a rather cluttered (in a positive way) medieval scape within the building—which was inspired by Father Bonfiglio’s desires—to the very clean minimalist interior that Father Suwalsky was envisioning was a wrenching experience that stretched us from a design point of view. Ultimately, we welcomed the change of agenda toward something with more architectural potential, rather than a narrative experience.
How did you site the building within the context of the school campus?
Fung: The building originated from the consideration of this chapel as part of a grouping of cultural facilities for the campus, including a performance center just opposite. It’s an end point for the campus, so it addresses two different approaches: one is the formal approach from the street and the other is from the school, for students coming toward the chapel.
You’ve talked about the integral role that light plays in this
project. How did you emphasize that and find ways to bring it in?
Fung: One of the things that we were very interested in is that the building has multiple identities, and each side of the building, and the apertures on each, are very different. Outside of the sanctuary, it’s very bright. But in the sanctuary, we were very interested in calibrating how light would come in and down onto the altar—whether it was through a skylight or pocket window, allowing a stream of light to come in as an accent, as opposed to washing the space. The light, and how we introduce it, brings movement and adds cadence to the experience of entering the chapel.
What techniques did you use to develop the quality of light?
Hodgetts: We built a huge model, about 6 or 7 feet long, and we were at it with mat knives and masking tape, changing the shape and configuration of the apertures and their orientation. We took the model out to our office parking lot to check out what was happening with the light. It was very much an analog trial-and-error process.
Fung: It was important for us to give the glass a thickness. We wanted it to have a three-dimensional feel, so we created a light box which has a frit pattern on one side, and colored glass on the other. We gave the stain and frit pattern color, and also painted the inside of the box. We started putting swatches of different colors on the inside of the model, to make sure that we had the right combination of color and reflectivity. We did that study this summer with our interns. They realized it was just not one quick decision of assigning a color, but that it involved understanding it, and looking at it under real conditions. It’s so fundamentally important to teach that kind of intensive nature of study as part of the design process.
How did you arrive at the decision to express the structure so visibly, especially on the south façade?
Fung: We wanted to support the glass, and we also needed to have seismic bracing for the building. It was important for us to express the building on that side, so we braced it with a pattern that reflected what Father Bonfiglio called a “crown of thorns;” that came out of earlier sketches where we were studying a different version of the project.
Hodgetts: Also, we had concerns with keeping the roof as a shelter element and not having columns—and certainly not seismic bracing—in the interior of the building. The idea of putting [the bracing] out on that far plane was the only one which our engineer could make work seismically because of our other concerns about keeping the envelope clear. So we utilized the engineering aspect of it and we transformed it into something that has a kind of subtle overtone of Catholic liturgy and those sort of tangled branches that you see so often in religious paintings. But it very much evolved as we worked.
Your analog approach to research had a positive outcome on the
design of this building. How does that hands-on mentality influence your
Hodgetts: There are certain things about the tactile nature of a building that we still feel are best approached physically, rather than digitally. The thing that you can do, let’s say with our big model, is make very minor and subtle changes, perhaps adding a half an inch to a window slot, which profoundly affect the light. You wouldn’t have that happening in a 3D-printed model. And so if you want to make an architecture in which things are palpable and tactile, the analog approach seems to be an inevitable step. You can’t avoid it—or you avoid it at your peril. —Deane Madsen