Seattle University's Chapel of St. Ignatius

  • By John Pastier
  • Posted 1/06/2001
  • Essay 2931
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Seattle University's Chapel of St. Ignatius, dedicated on April 6, 1997, was the first major work in the region designed by Steven Holl (b. 1947), a New York architect born in Bremerton, raised locally, and educated at the University of Washington. Located on the Seattle University campus between Broadway and Madison, this small 6,100-square foot building is highly symbolic, physically complex, and boldly expressive. It celebrates the life and thought of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of priests that staff and administer the university.

Light An Essence

More than any other local building, the chapel makes light its essence, treating it metaphorically as a means to wisdom, and physically as a substance to be captured, manipulated, and used to visually define the free-form shapes of the spaces inside. The architect's concept sketches were titled "seven bottles of light in a stone box," and this fanciful notion eventually took the form of irregular skylights erupting from a basically rectangular building comprised of tilt-up concrete slab walls. (Paradoxically, this normally inexpensive construction method was here used on an unusually expensive building.)

Inside, most of the natural and artificial light sources are tinted either by transmission through colored glass or indirect reflection from painted surfaces, and arranged so that each is juxtaposed with its complement -- red against green, blue against yellow, and orange against purple. The result is a mysteriously glowing interior whose visual mood changes throughout the day and the year.

Architectural Influences

Seasoned architectural observers find many classic modern influences in the structure -- the designs of Finnish Architect Alvar Aalto in a general sense, many aspects of Le Corbusier's pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp in France, and interlocking L-shaped details characteristic of the Austrian-American R. M. Schindler. But these sources are combined in a way personal to Holl, producing a building that in places combines gentle curves with abrupt angularity, and poetic grace with occasional awkwardness.

As a totality, however, the chapel transcends its shortcomings, and has captivated both the community and professionals. Its success was largely collaborative. Seattle University's president, Father William J. Sullivan, provided the enlightened patronage that is usually essential to achieve superior architecture, and associated architects Olson-Sundberg translated Holl's unfettered ideas into a buildable entity. Other significant roles were played by many artists and artisan-fabricators, most notably Linda Beaumont, who designed the interior and furnishings of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, a subsidiary space with an onyx tabernacle, a 20-foot Madrona tree branch, and beeswax-coated walls inset with gold-leaf prayers.

St. Ignatius chapel has earned several awards, including a national Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects in 1998. A scale model of the building is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


John Pastier, "Let There Be Light," Seattle Weekly, April 16, 1997; John Pastier Personal Communication with Steven Holl, April 1997; Seattle University website (; Steven Holl Architects Website (

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