Style as Substance

Volume 43, Issue 2 :: by George C. Knight, AIA

What does the Thomas Aquinas College chapel mean?

Traditional buildings, ones that follow traditional patterns of assembly and organization and are made from traditional materials, even ones that are extremely well designed and constructed, are rarely acclaimed on architectural grounds these days. With much critical and popular attention currently focused on architectural innovation, bedazzlement, and authorship, traditional buildings, when not overlooked or slighted, are often considered, at least cursorily, on the basis of their “shock value” to prevailing design culture. In fact, they are often so anomalous that thoughtful recognition of their inherent qualities and characteristics becomes a footnote if they are recognized at all.

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel in the context of the St. Thomas Aquinas College campus. Photo: © schafphoto.com

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel in the context of the St. Thomas Aquinas College campus.

When one considers a traditional building that happens to be a Roman Catholic church the phenomenon is all the more extreme. Liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s has led many in the Catholic Church to reconsider or even upend the traditions of church building established over centuries; clerics, congregants, architects, building committees, and the liturgical consultants who serve them have strived, in both the renovation of existing churches and the construction of new ones, to create meaningful, devotional spaces that often overtly dismiss familiar symbolic patterns, formal relationships, and functional organizations. In this context, new churches that critically, self-consciously, and uncompromisingly invoke the traditions of Catholic architecture stir not only architectural but theological consternation and are considered by most of the progressive-minded as, at best, outliers and, at worst, retrograde and liturgically incorrect. Occasionally there emerges a project, however, that because of its quality and character and because of what possibilities it reveals, demands a more careful assessment. One such example is Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, by Duncan G. Stroik Architects.

The Chapel’s Institutional Context

The chapel as it faces the college lawn.

The chapel as it faces the college lawn.

Sited at the terminus of a verdant, fledgling central quadrangle of the Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel is the centerpiece of the young Catholic college’s growing campus. Founded in 1971 in response to what it deemed was the growing secularism within Catholic higher education and the general erosion of liberal education, Thomas Aquinas College is a self-described “Catholic liberal arts college with a fully integrated curriculum composed exclusively of the Great Books.” Though similar to other “great books” curricula such as those of St. John’s Colleges in Annapolis and in Santa Fe, Thomas Aquinas College conceives of itself as being an institution where “students perfect their intellects under the light of the truths revealed by God through the Catholic Church.” It is this institutional synthesis of its academic and religious mission for its 350 undergraduate students that prompted Dr. Thomas E. Dillon, the college’s long-standing and influential president (who died shortly following the Chapel’s dedication), to commit in 2001 to creating a structure that would be not only a defining institutional building but would also be a central instrument of intellectual and spiritual growth.

Site plan

Site plan

Given the college’s history, its academic focus on the foundational texts of Western culture (especially those of its namesake), and its critique of the secular drift in Catholic educational life in America, particularly in the decades following the Second Vatican Council, it comes as no surprise that the college sought inspiration for its new chapel in the tradition of Catholic architecture in Europe. After a lengthy search, the college commissioned Duncan Stroik, principal of Duncan G. Stroik Architects and one of the founding instructors in the classical architecture curriculum (unique in the country) of the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. An outspoken advocate for a resurgence of traditional ecclesiastical architecture, Stroik immersed himself in the college’s quest and traveled with Dr. Dillon throughout Europe and the Americas to critically study and cultivate ideas for the chapel. The result was ultimately a cruciform basilica crowned with a pendentive dome and lantern and replete with a campanile reminiscent of an Italian renaissance church.

Against the Grain

Chapel Floor Plan

Chapel Floor Plan

While the decision to build a traditional church might have been an inevitable one for the college, it was largely out of step with the prevailing thinking about Catholic architecture. In the early 1990s Seattle University had commissioned Steven Holl to design their Chapel of Saint Ignatius, which was noted for its eccentric and sculptural massing, its use of colorful indirect lighting to identify programmatic elements, its serene and abstract water court, and its inventive formal interiors. Similarly, while the Thomas Aquinas College chapel was being planned, one of America’s most important new churches, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (Faith & Form, Vol. 37, No. 3, 2004, p. 18) in nearby Los Angeles, was beginning construction. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rafael Moneo, the cathedral, with its angular, asymmetrical massing, disposition of liturgical elements, and voluminous interior, is a celebrated departure from, rather than an embrace of, traditional form. Another example, designed concurrently by Richard Meier, also a Pritzker laureate; the Church Dio Padre Misericordioso in Rome (Faith & Form, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2004, p. 6) features three concentric sail-like roofs, panel cladding, large expanses of glazing, and an elegantly spare interior. Perhaps an even more diametric example is the more recently completed Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland (Faith & Form, Vol. 42, No. 1, 2009, p. 6) by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, which is distinguished by its plan-form of intersecting arcs, centralized altar, wood ribbed structure, and glazed curtain wall envelope.

View from the entrance, down the nave toward the altar. Photo: © schafphoto.com

View from the entrance, down the nave toward the altar.

The above examples are the most conspicuous and celebrated of those illustrating the trends in Catholic architecture to embody what are understood to be liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council as promulgated in the United States by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy’s 1978 statement, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship and updated in 2000 as Built of Living Stones. Equally influential are the tenets of post-war modernist architecture whose roots lie in the work of such influential architects and church builders as Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, and Mies van der Rohe, among others. These buildings represent the sentiments of many liturgical “progressives” who argue that, to fulfill the reforms of the Sacrosanctum Consilium, the constitution emanating from the Second Vatican Council dealing with liturgy, church builders need to reconsider such fundamental decisions as the location of the tabernacle, the position of the altar relative to the congregation, the configuration of the nave or “worship space,” and the orientation of pews.

Overview of the nave from the pulpit. Photo: © schafphoto.com

Overview of the nave from the pulpit.

While this position is broadly supported by many clerics and congregants alike, there is an equally committed sentiment that many such reforms undermine the principle of the church as the Domus Dei, or House of God. The increasingly loudly voiced displeasure with progressivism is evidenced in such recent texts as Michael Rose’s 2001 book, Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again. One needs only to scan the Internet to find scores of vitriolic blogs to gauge the popular, ecclesiastic, and academic dissent. Indeed, as the editor of Sacred Architecture: The Journal of the Institute for Sacred Architecture, Stroik himself has been an outspoken critic of what he has consistently argued is a misreading of the Second Vatican Council confused by the influence of modernist architectural theory. These positions were well framed in the pages of this journal titled, “But, is it Catholic?’ The debate on Catholic design” (Faith & Form, Vol. 36, No. 3, 2003).

To pretend that the Thomas Aquinas College chapel does not have a stake in the ongoing disagreement between liturgical conservatives and progressives would be coy. With its uncharacteristically American obedience to the Vatican, its embrace of traditional liturgy (including the frequent celebration of the Latin mass), the use of a communion rail, and the exalted position of the tabernacle beneath a baldachin, the chapel exemplifies the spirit of resurgence of the traditional liturgy. In light of the above debate, one might be tempted to acknowledge the significance of this chapel, simply, as a salvo on behalf of conservatism. However, to let the chapel stand simply as a polemic against many of the common liturgical reforms prevalent in contemporary Catholicism is to miss its greatest importance. Let us rather assess the virtues of the chapel building.

Typology as Language

Legibility in architecture, the opportunity for a person to recognize forms, functions, and their meanings within a structure, is often first achieved by the building’s organizational make-up. This organizational make-up is often categorized as typology, or a building’s or a place’s order reduced to its most elemental state. Nowhere is this more evident than in the siting of the chapel itself. Like Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia (ironically, a decidedly secular library), the Thomas Aquinas chapel is set at the head of a collection of academic and administrative buildings. While each of these buildings maintains a familial relationship to the chapel and to one another, the chapel’s primacy is immediately evident by virtue of its massing, its higher order of material, its size, and its siting. Rising out of the lush valley as one approaches the campus by road, the three-story bell tower announces the chapel and the campus from much farther afield. This simple but effective strategy of using familiar, intelligible form continues as one enters the chapel itself. By using a cruciform, basilical plan as the organizing template for the chapel, the architecture reveals liturgical action to the congregant. For example, one is immediately aware of where to enter the building (through the large central doorway), how one is to orient oneself when within it (along the primary, longitudinal axis), where the Eucharist is reserved (at the crossing beneath the dome), how one is to approach the Eucharist (at the communion rail), where the music is created (in the choir loft), etc.

One might equate the strategy of employing strong, easily understood typological formations with being formulaic, or unresponsive to site and program, or even tiresome. This is often the case, and indeed a great deal of contemporary architecture seems determined to suppress these familiar associations. And yet the chapel, by employing quietly innovative design strategies, illustrates the contrary. For example, in order to interconnect with the existing system of arcades linking the college’s academic and administrative buildings, the chapel’s design deploys polygonal, flanking pavilions inspired by posas (processional chapels found in Mexican architecture). Similarly, set behind the magnificent neo-baroque façade of the chapel’s entrance, Stroik created a generous exo-narthex or outdoor foyer. The unexpected space provides a delightfully generous opportunity to gather on the way in or out of the building, protected from rain and the southern California sun. With the apse of the chapel emerging from grade almost a full story below the façade, Stroik addressed the sloping ground by designing an elevated plaza at the north flank of the chapel to serve as a vestibule for those entering the campus from the lower, central parking lot. As public a space as this is, Stroik designed the chapel’s opposite flank as a serene meditation garden with magnificent views of the scenic Santa Paula hills.

With the college’s belief that religious and academic development are intertwined, the chapel’s ornamental and sculptural program seems to be the most overtly legible, even educational, aspect of the design. Marble statues of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, the great Doctors of the Church, are set in niches framed by dazzling Ionic columns flanking the chapel’s doorway. They are but the beginning of a series of impressively executed statuary throughout the chapel that includes shrines, angels, stations of the cross, a bronze baldachin reminiscent of Bernini’s iconic design in St. Peter’s, and exquisite plaster Corinthian capitals with an image of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, all of which are meant to enlighten the minds and souls of worshippers. Notwithstanding the examples of “progressive” ecclesiastic architecture mentioned previously, there is no shortage of traditional architecture, or at least what aspires to look like traditional architecture, in contemporary church building. For many, years of disappointment with “progressive” ecclesiastical architecture, often in the form of unsuccessful renovations of older buildings, has spawned a yearning for more familiar forms.

And yet, it is rare to see traditional design executed with such finesse and capability. Throughout the chapel one sees examples of an architectural language commanded by a designer who can satisfy its rigor while offering delightful and meaningful spaces for its users. Whether at the of juncture of varied scales of vaulting; the intersection of column capitals; the integration of varied orders; or the profiles of entablatures, bases, and balusters, the Thomas Aquinas College chapel evidences competency and resolution that are rare. An additional example: upon entering, one is immediately struck by the chapel’s luminosity. In much contemporary architecture expansive glazing, with its reflexive association with transparency and light, is used to excess, sometimes even recklessly. The Thomas Aquinas Chapel is refreshingly solid, but thanks to the discerning use of clerestory windows, lanterns, vaulting, and luminous materials, it is surprisingly light-filled.

A Classical Heir

All of the above leads on to the conclusion that one must see the Thomas Aquinas College chapel as a seminal achievement in the ever-nascent classical revival of the past few decades promulgated by such institutions as the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America and Stroik’s own University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. What is perhaps more intriguing is the testimony it provides to the idea that classical architecture is vibrant, relevant, and (most surprisingly) achievable. One of the common explanations provided to those who had resisted admonitions that our culture should not re-adopt traditional building was that it was beyond the reach of possibility; that its trades, designers, and craftsmen were all but gone; that, even if they were available, they would be financially impossible for any client to afford. It is here that one has to credit the determination and clarity of conviction of Thomas Aquinas College to have sustained their vision for the chapel through to its completion (according to the architect, the chapel’s total project cost, including a new road and other infrastructure, was $23 million).

The year 2008 was the 500th anniversary of the birth of the hugely influential Andrea Palladio, the great Renaissance architect and church builder. This event occasioned numerous symposia, lectures, and exhibits to commemorate and celebrate his work and influence. Typically understated among these celebrations was the point that this endlessly innovative architect’s work was, in fact, highly derivative of the ruined classical precedents that he studied, documented, and published alongside his own designs. Chronologically three times closer to our age than to the precedents that inspired it, Palladio’s work remains a brilliant example of the persistence, adaptability, and versatility of the classical language and its perennial applicability to ecclesiastical architecture.

Along with an increasingly sophisticated and adroit movement of classical and traditional architecture, the Thomas Aquinas College chapel is an heir to this example. One trusts that its quality will heighten the expectations of the faithful for profound and beautiful places of worship.

George Knight, AIA, is a founding principal of Knight Architecture LLC. Formerly a senior associate with Cesar Pelli & Associates, he is a critic at the Yale School of Architecture.

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