Michael S. Rose.....
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14 May 2004
An alternative proposal for Ave Maria
Notre Dame students design campus plan for college

Proposed chapel for Ave Maria University designed by
Notre Dame architecture student Matthew Enquist.
more chapel images | university images |

Three students from the University of Notre Dame have designed a campus and town master-plan for the newly-founded Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida.

Matthew Enquist, Ryan Nicholson, and John Doyle are undergraduate thesis students in Notre Dame's School of Architecture. In the final year of the five-year program students work on detailed plans for a hypothetical project of their own choosing.

Working under Professor Thomas Gordon Smith, the students also designed three major buildings for the Naples campus.

"Our program was to develop an integrated campus and town master plan," explained Enquist, "and then to develop three iconic buildings of this university town--the library, the civic center, and the church."

Enquist, who designed the church, said he and his thesis team were unaware of Ave Maria's plans when they conceived their thesis project.

In late March, Ave Maria University announced detailed plans for its proposed chapel (pictured at left). Widely criticized as an impractical eyesore, the architect's proposal requires three thousand tons of structural steel and aluminum, and is to be largely sheathed in glass. Aside from the impracticality of the design, it was also criticized for failing to reflect the historical tradition of Catholic church architecture and consciously avoiding any connection to the rich Spanish mission style so common to Florida for the past two centuries.

Ave Maria University founder Thomas Monaghan has expressed the desire to recreate Frank Lloyd Wright's "prairie style" architecture of the Midwest throughout the new Florida campus. That approach was also taken by University of South Florida's Manatee campus, with overly banal results.

The Notre Dame students took a decidedly different approach to the Ave Maria project, one that all three hope will generate some positive discussion among those who are involved in the Ave Maria development project.

"Maybe some ideas can be generated to influence the further design of the university," said Ryan Nicholson, designer of the (pictured below).

Proposed library for Ave Maria University designed by
Notre Dame architecture student Ryan Nicholson.
view library images |

"We really enjoyed exploring what kind of architecture and campus environment would reflect the culture and tradition of a Catholic university in Florida," said Enquist.

The Notre Dame students recognized that the campus architecture needed to respond to the hot and muggy Florida climate. "This led us to decide that our architecture should evolve from the Spanish mission style, which can be found as a regional architectural type in Florida," said Enquist.

The students placed the campus in the center of the proposed town, creating three small neighborhoods that grow out of the university.

Proposed civic center for Ave Maria University designed by
Notre Dame architecture student John Doyle.
view civic center images |

The university is divided into two major parts: one centers around the library and its traditional mall quad; the other is arranged around the church in the best of medieval fashion.

The civic center (pictured above), designed by John Doyle, functions as a link that ties these two campus neighborhoods together. It also provides a place for students and townies to meet and intermingle, drawing the town into the university.

Proposed site plan for the campus and town of
Ave Maria designed by Notre Dame architecture
students Ryan Nicholson, John Doyle, and Matthew Enquist.
view site plan images |

A viable alternative
Enquist's church design provides evidence that it is still possible to design beautiful churches today, churches that express the Catholic faith and respect the regional architectural influences.

The Notre Dame thesis proposal grows out of the past two millennia of ecclesiastical patrimony. Consequently, Enquist's proposed church design identifies itself in every way with the Catholic Church's rich history and tradition.

Ave Maria's proposal, not so.

In stark contrast to the Notre Dame student's design, Ave Maria University's proposed chapel (as reflected in the architect's designs published in March) is decidedly abstract and modernist in its architectural vocabulary. It pays respects not to the timeless patrimony of the Church throughout the centuries; rather it clumsily tips its hat to the missteps in church architecture taken over the past half-century, with particular reverence paid to several non-Catholic modernist chapels--Thorncrown Chapel, the non-denominational U.S. Air Force Academy , and the evangelical Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles.

Thomas Monaghan's penchant for the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright has been particularly detrimental to the development of Ave Maria's campus, and most visibly in the design of the university chapel. It is well known that Wright, an American, publicly rejected the European heritage of churches, disdainfully referring to them as "sepulchers."

Back to the drawing board?
A week after Ave Maria trumpeted its proposed design in an expensive all-out media blitz (resulting in newspaper headlines such as
"Giant Jesus will greet students to Catholic college"), the university removed the chapel images from its website.

After suffering much ridicule by conservative Catholics who would probably otherwise support the stated goals of Ave Maria University (see the for a particularly hilarious reaction to the proposed design), university officials appear to be distancing themselves from the architect's proposal.

Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., chancellor of the university, admitted he's received a flood of criticism about the proposed chapel design. Even so, in a March telephone conversation with this writer, he explained that he supports the ongoing design and believes it to be an "essentially Gothic structure."

The official form letter response from Ave Maria officials responding to criticism about the design takes a queer tack, not merely backing away from its trumpeted proposal, but actually disavowing its previous public relations efforts.

The letter, signed by VP of University Relations Dr. Carole Carpenter, states that "by the time of the press conference [unveiling the proposed design], our thinking on the [chapel] had already moved beyond the materials presented: for example, the exterior of the church was not all glass at the time of the unveiling. Nor was it intended that the facade and crucifix would be glass."

This is a curious choice of words considering that the models, drawings, and the written March 24 press release identified the chapel as "glass-skinned," and clearly identified the facade crucifix as 60-feet of glass.

Carpenter's letter emphasizes that the Ave Maria campus design, especially the design of its chapel, is a work in progress. "The unveiling was really the commencement of the next stage in our efforts--on what we like to refer to as our pilgrimage," she wrote.

It is ironic that students from the University of Notre Dame would be the ones to present such a beautiful, well thought-out alternative to Ave Maria's first stab at campus planning and design.

Ave Maria officials have jokingly referred to its new Naples university as "the new Notre Dame," and "the Notre Dame of the South." Ave Maria founder Thomas Monaghan has even expressed the hope of defeating the real Notre Dame on the gridiron.

Thus far, it's Notre Dame 7, Ave Maria, 0.

Another suggestion for Ave Maria: Why not at least attempt a field goal by inviting Matthew Enquist, Ryan Nicholson, and John Doyle down to Naples to present the incredible work that they have produced? Why not listen to their ideas? They have made the images of their work available here for all to see. You can bet they won't distance themselves from their proposal. It is an impressive accomplishment, and something to be learned from.

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Michael S. Rose is the author a several books on church architecture including . His forthcoming book In Tiers of Glory: A History of Catholic Church Architecture in 100 Pages is due out in November. He is editor of

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Photo: M.S. Rose

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