Chapel of St. Ignatius

Firm: Steven Holl Architects

Owner: Seattle University

Location: Seattle

In the spiritual exercises of the Jesuits, a religious order of the Catholic Church, no single method is prescribed. Instead, the sect recognizes that “different methods helped different people.” That ideal is reflected in the Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle University’s main chapel designed by Steven Holl Architects in 1997, where differences in light unify to support the worship and ritual needs of the university community.

The impetus for the chapel began in 1994 when Father William Sullivan implemented his plan to construct a new center for spiritual life at the university. Sullivan’s vision also prompted a new interpretation of Jesuit tradition. During the interview process, Holl and his design team presented a lecture on the phenomenology of architecture, which the campus ministry embraced and connected to related writings by St. Ignatius. After receiving the commission, the saint’s teachings became a primary source of inspiration. The team worked closely with the ministry and students to define the program throughout the design process and visited several important Ignatian sites in Barcelona and Rome.

In designing the chapel, the team settled on the metaphor of light as the divine spirit, featured in a quote by St. Ignatius, to serve as the guiding design concept. Within, light is sculpted through several volumes that protrude from the chapel roof, each of which aims to harness different qualities of light for one united ceremony. Its site formed a new quadrangle for the university’s campus, with green space to the north, west, and, in the future, east. Its rectangular plan was carefully tailored to define the campus space as well as the processional and gathering space within. Directly to the south sits a reflecting pond, dubbed a “thinking field” by the architect, washed with light in the evening to further emphasize the chapel’s geometry.

In designing the chapel, the team settled on the metaphor of light as the divine spirit, featured in a quote by St. Ignatius, to serve as the guiding design concept.

Each of the chapel’s light volumes supports fundamental elements of the Jesuit worship program. For instance, south-facing light corresponds with the procession, an essential component of mass, while city-facing northern light, corresponds with the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and the Jesuit tradition of community outreach. The different lights concept is further enhanced by the combination of pure colored lenses and fields of reflected color within each light volume. In addition, baffles within each volume oppose large windows, back-painted in bright colors so that only the reflected color can be seen within the chapel.

The chapel’s overarching design concept of seven bottles of light contained within a stone box is also expressed through its tilt-up construction method. Its integral color tilt-up concrete slab offers a more direct and economical tectonic than stone veneer. The outer envelope was divided into 21 interlocking panels cast flat on the chapel and reflecting pond slabs and cured across 18 days. In just 12 hours, the panels were lifted into place by a hydraulic crane, which often handled loads weighing as much as 80,000 pounds.

At night, the key time for the university community to celebrate mass, the volumes all glow like-colored beacons that can be seen across the campus. On some occasions, for those constantly praying, the lights shine throughout the night. While the gathering of different lights concept framed the design, it is also emblematic of the university’s mission and the many nationalities of students who attend and gather under one roof. The contributions of those students were central to the design process, which delivered a design for the chapel that is simultaneously forward-looking and firmly rooted in the past.

Additional information

Local Architect: Olson Sundberg Architects

Engineer - Structural: Monte Clark Engineering

Engineer - Structural: Datum Engineering

Engineer - Electrical: Abacus Engineered Systems

Engineer - Mechanical: Abacus Engineered Systems

Liturgical Consultant: Bill Brown, AIA P.C.

Lighting Consultant: L'Observatoire International

Acoustical Consultant: Peter George and Associates

General Contractor: Baugh Construction


Susan Blomquist, AIA, Chair, Payette, Boston

L. William Zahner, Zahner, Kansas City, Mo.

Ana Astiazaran, AIAS, University of Arizona, Tucson, Ariz.

Dominique Hawkins, FAIA, Preservation Design Partnership, LLC, Philadelphia

Eddie Jones, FAIA, Jones Studio, Tempe, Ariz.

Gia Mainiero, AIA, Dattner Architects, New York

Pierre Roberson, AIA, AECOM, Detroit

Gail Kubik, Assoc. AIA, Finegold Alexander Architects, Salem, Mass.

Heather Young, AIA, Heather Young Architects, Palo Alto, Calif.

Image credits

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Paul Warchol

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Paul Warchol

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Paul Warchol

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Paul Warchol

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Paul Warchol