Steven Holl’s St Ignatius Chapel at Seattle University.
For a year, in 1960-61, I studied architecture at IIT, the transposed Bauhaus of Weimar Germany. Just a few years before I had arrived Mies van der Rohe had run the school, and it was in effect a monastery of modernist values, with Mies standing at the fore, like St Ignatius before the Jesuits. Mies was a virtual religion, and his austere bare-bones internationalist style was the catechism, and students were inculcated in his values and style, and cranked out veritable clones of his architecture of the “International Style” which the corporate world had quickly found its own, and blighted cities around the globe with its severe boxes with ineptly done gridded curtain walls. This straight-jacket naturally gave birth far later to the Baroque flamboyance of, say, Frank Gehry.
I spent a year in school in this building, Crown Hall, on the Chicago IIT campus. It was elegant, with terrazzo floors, glass top to bottom, and open space broken only with low partitions and a central utility shaft. I could wander the entire school, seeing the models made by later classes and the graduate students: clones of Mies every one. In less than a year I determined that architecture was a business and that I was not going to fit into it; nor did I wish to become a Mies stamp.
[I note that while Crown Hall is elegant, during the winters it was impossible to stand within 10 feet of the uninsulated glass walls, in the summer it was a natural oven (at the time lacking air conditioning); the sun would glare off the terrazzo floors, and, well, Mies’ aesthetic classicism had little to do with living human matters – he did not himself chose to live in one of his glass box Chicago high-rises, but instead in a fusty brownstone abode.]
One of Mies’ dictums, paralleling that of other religions, was that “god is in the details.” While I dismissed the strictures of Miesienism almost immediately, attracted more to the flourishes of the heretic Corbusier, I did learn much at the Miesien altar. And one was surely, just where god resided.
The chapel at IIT, in which all things are reduced to open space boxes
In 1961, during a summer in Europe, I made a hitch-hiking visit to Corbusier’s Chapel in Ronchamp. I’d seen pictures and was drawn moth-to-flame to it. Arriving I was immediately disappointed in that it was surrounded by a scrim of tourist trap peddlers, religious and architectural, something none of the photos seem ever to show. Even so the building itself was a marvel, an architectural sculpture sitting on a large hill-top meadow, pristine and quiet.
It was, like Mies’ work, fully modernist, but infused with emotion, respectful of, if not believing in, the religious impulse which it was asked to express.
Since then my eyes have cast a harsh eye on other architects, almost pathologically honing in on them-damned-details. Today, Oct 4 22019, I sit in Steven Holls’ much lauded little St. Ignatius chapel here at the University of Seattle, a structure cited for its allegedly glowing color schemata, with veils of color-coordinated light gracing the walls, to presumably spiritual effect. To be utterly cynical I think I have seen big store hype machines deploy these things better, and certainly Holls’ deployment of color pales next to James Turrell, this place being at very best a very pallid matter.
James Turrell pieces
Structurally this chapel apes Romanic architecture with arching vaults overhead, and baffles blocking direct light in favor of reflected light, done in flat hues of blue and pink and soft oranges and green. Alleged to harmonize, instead they simply fall flat, like super-lame modernist would-be stained-glass windows, the old originals of which surely these dollops of color were meant to echo. In keeping with the architectural failure here, likewise are the pieces of “religious art” similarly deadening. And why not: the makers simply don’t really believe this stuff – not Holls, not the sculptor or painter. At best they attempt to ape and genuflect to long dead beliefs, this arch, this wanna-dazzle touch of light; this wants-to-be solemn space which if anything celebrates the spiritual vacuum of the times.
Living in Europe quite a fair time, I became a self-described church-junkie – because, like Willy Sutton said regarding money, that is where the art (mostly) was. I do not and never did for a second share the beliefs which animated the raising of the innumerable cathedrals, churches, bishop’s palaces, convents and monasteries, and such, that I visited. But while finding the background beliefs dubious at best, and abhorrent in the actual human behaviors they produced, I had to admit that whoever made these things really believed what they were meant to convey. One can see it in the most sophisticated of sculpture and architectural structure and adornment, or in the most primitive. The finger prints of belief, however misguided, are unmistakable, tucked into Mies’ “details.”
Whereas here, they are utterly absent, and instead a belief in doing as little as necessary to produce the effect, so we get ridiculous scraped stucco wall coverings, kitschy lights hanging overhead, piss-poor door frames and all the other signs of don’t-really-give-a-fuck’ism under the guise of a smattering of religious seriousness. After all, the Holls’ firm knew well what climate Seattle has and yet….. The religion here is bottom-line capitalism and it was willing to invest just enough to give the illusion of caring about this spiritual crap. Well, not really quite enough.
For his secular religiousity, Turrell tends towards pomposity, as if to ape the grandeur of a great cathedral, while not bowing to its symbols; Holls bows unconvincingly and fails to catch himself before landing on his face. Not that this seems to have disturbed the handful of architectural tourists who passed through, one a cluster of Asian folks accompanied by a serious looking, gesticulating professor. Though it seemed these people were less than overwhelmed as they wandered in, glanced around and departed in a matter of minutes, their opinion expressed by their feet. However, the perfunctory modernism of Holls’ chapel does fit in perfectly with the mundane urban landscape around it at the University of Seattle – unremarkable, ugly, utilitarian, a training ground for students to learn to not care about anything.