Chicago-based architect John Ronan, AIA, has a strong interest in the materiality of architecture, and his design for the coed Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School on the city’s gritty West Side is a case in point. The 94,000-square-foot building’s exterior is a pulsating pattern of fiber-reinforced cement panels—in varying sizes and shades of gray—which give the building a strong visual identity using an inexpensive product. But on the first floor of the easternmost end of the L-shaped building, the rhythm of these panels is disrupted by another humble material: glass block. Using different sizes and shapes of the block to form a patterned wall, Ronan uses a simple materials palette to clearly set this space apart.
Behind the translucent walls is one of the Jesuit institution’s key spaces: the Chapel of St. Ignatius Loyola. The 45-by-67-foot room seats 200—enough to hold any single class from the school’s four-year program—and is surrounded by three walls of daylight filtered through the floor-to-ceiling glass block. These walls are particularly bright during the morning hours when it’s most heavily used. “We had to activate the space,” Ronan says of his material choice. The wavy face of the material—combined with an intricate wall pattern formed from six different sizes and shapes of block—gives the room an abstract quality that still imbues it with a level of sensuality, according to Ronan. A three-story light well creates the illusion of a skylight in the first-floor space, activating the ceiling plane with light as well. The chapel’s fourth wall is made of the same cement-board paneling that clads the exterior of the building, rendered in a monochromatic dark gray and mottled with inscribed crosses. Inside the wall cavity, a black acoustical liner helps absorb sound; stretched-fabric panels on the 11-1/2-foot-tall ceiling mitigate the otherwise hard surfaces of the space.
Worshippers sit in simple chairs—the only pieces in the chapel that are catalog-ordered. The chairs are not fixed and the relatively lightweight liturgical furnishings allow for a flexible arrangement that permits various prayer and sacramental services beyond the Mass. The architect-designed furnishings—including the birch wood altar, two candleholders, ambo, tabernacle, and credence—are stark, but elegant. A sandblasted stainless steel font by Ronan marks the entrance to the space.
The floor is a simple but durable polished concrete, carefully finished to reflect the refracted light that pours in through the glass-block walls. The surface’s only punctuations are a series of field-cut joints and an inset stainless steel cross that marks the center point of the chapel. The effect is compelling—making natural light the dominant presence in the room, unencumbered by decorative elements.
Roman Catholic worship spaces can draw on 20 centuries of precedent. Here Ronan, who himself is Catholic, draws on monastic traditions that direct worshippers to silent reflection. The chapel’s namesake and founder of the Jesuit order, St. Ignatius of Loyola, stressed quiet discernment in his Spiritual Exercises, which have been a strong part of Jesuit education for four-and-a-half centuries.
A crucifix hangs at the east end of the chapel, which is also the termination of the central axis that cuts through the long side of the larger school building. Ronan creates the cross from two stainless steel cables that span horizontally from column to column and vertically from floor to ceiling. The thinness of the material contrasts sharply with the life-size scale of the overall symbol, in a subtle play between the abstract and the real. The carved corpus that hangs from these cables has features that reflect the dominant ethnicity of the student body.
Only about 10 percent of the school’s students are Catholic, according to president Rev. Christopher J. Devron—but most are from homes with a Christian faith background. The Jesuit educational mission promotes the formation of “men and women for others”—and the connections drawn between the chapel’s design, and the principles of Ignatian spirituality that inspired it, aid in developing these ideals in the students regardless of their background. “You watch the kids and the light on their faces,” Devron says. He uses the room’s filtered daylight as a teaching opportunity while preaching in the space. “Each of you has a candle inside of you,” he tells his students. “Shine your own light.”
The teenagers who study at Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School have busy lives. They come from generally overcrowded and economically disadvantaged homes where “quiet time” is a rare commodity. The school’s curriculum is structured to provide a path toward future success, but the chapel in particular allows each student to find a refuge from everything else. “What can we discern when we pray in silence?” Devron asks his students. One of them characterized her experience in Ronan’s spare and light-filled space by saying:“It helped me find my inner self.” A powerful lesson from a simple space.