A hothouse chapel in
Ave Maria University needs to return to the
drawing board but quick!
This week announced detailed
plans for a proposed chapel on its newly-founded
campus near Naples, Florida. Requiring three
thousand tons of structural steel and aluminum,
the 60,000-square-foot glass-skinned church is
set to be the nations largest.
Unfortunately, the design unveiled by school
officials is an impractical eyesore.
its floor plan is vaguely reminiscent of a
basilica-style church, the unsightly structure
otherwise breaks with the history and tradition
of Catholic church architecture while tipping its
hat to some of the more avant-garde Protestant
productions of recent decades. Moreover, it
consciously avoids any connection to the rich
Spanish mission style so common to Florida for
Not only is
it ugly, it is certain to be an embarassment to
an otherwise promising Catholic institution of
higher learning. Quite obviously the chapel is
inconsistent with Ave Marias reputation for
embracing authentic Catholic culture and
The proposed church
is perhaps most reminiscent of Sir Joseph
Paxtons Crystal Palace, the enormous hall
designed to house Londons Great Exhibition
of 1851. Constructed entirely of cast iron and
glass, the Palace was the largest structure to be
built of prefabricated units up to that time. It
is generally recognized by architectural
historians as the forerunner of industrial
construction that has produced many of the
unseemly behemoths of the twentieth century.
Paxton was a horticulturist, landscape gardener
and greenhouse architect. Not coincidentally, his
masterpiece resembled a giant hothouse.
same can be said of Ave Marias proposed
church. The 60-foot red-tinted glass cross
embedded within the transparent front façade
does little to reassure one that this filigree
structure isnt a conservatory full of
insectivorous plants and steaming compost piles.
In fact, the proposed structure should nicely
suit the purpose of cultivating exotic plants out
of season. After all, hothouses are designed to
be, well, hot. Considering the blistering heat
and humidity that characterizes the climate in
southern Florida much of the year, a glass
building is about as impractical as it
getsnot for plants but for people. (Has no
one considered the incredible impact of solar
heat gain?) Add to that the fact that Ave
Marias new campus is sprouting in Hurricane
Alley, and youve got to wonder if this
isnt an early April Fools joke.
One call to
the university assured me that this is no joke.
Its the real thingand theyre
moving ahead with the project come heat or
hurricanes. The chapel is expected to be
completed in 2006 along with much of the rest of
the new campus.
seems to be making a fuss over the shear enormity
of the proposed church. According to a March 24
press release, university officials boasted that
the new chapel "will have [the] largest
seating capacity of any Catholic church in the
country" as well as "the largest
crucifix in the world."
crucifix in the world? Come now. If that
doesnt smack of megalomania, I dont
know what does. And why on earth would a small
Catholic school with 122 students knocking around
1,000 acres in the remote swamplands of Florida
needor wantto accommodate a whopping
3,300 people? Why would petite Ave Maria aim for
more seating than New Yorks St.
Patricks Cathedral or Cardinal
Mahonys celebrated Yellow Armadillo in L.A., both of
which serve as the spiritual centerpiece of
archdioceses that serve millions of Catholics?
just so happens that seed money for the
mega-project was provided by Thomas S. Monaghan,
former owner of the Detroit Tigers and founder of
Dominos Pizza. Mr. Monaghan, a generous
philanthropist, tends to think big. But one must
understand that bigger is not necessarily better
nor even desirable.
it make much more sense for a fledgling school
like Ave Maria to build a well-designed,
modest-sized chapel for its community? (See Thomas Aquinas
College for an excellent example.)
After all, who in his right mind would donate
even a dollar to a newly established university
that appears to be blowing money like a drunken
sailor? Three thousand tons of structural steel
dont come cheap.
fact that Ave Maria touts its mission and its
curriculum as being steeped in Catholic culture
and tradition, its architecture (especially that
of a sacred building) deserves to match that
right-headed philosophy. Wouldnt it make
sense to patronize one of the architects who has
been responsible for the recent renewal of sacred
architecture in this country? Despite their major
accomplishments in the design of beautiful
Catholic churches, architects such as Duncan Stroik, , Dino Marcantonio, and werent even
as much as invited to compete for this project.
Two of these men also have campus chapels on
their list of credits. Stroik is responsible for
the Thomas Aquinas
Colleges beautiful new chapel and Thomas Gordon
Smith designed the seminary for the Fraternity
of St. Peter in Denton, Nebraska. Due in no small
part to these talented Catholic architects, many
are waking up to the fact that the churches
designed and built in the latter half of the
twentieth century have miserably failed the
Catholic people. Why then settle for an ugly
Goliath of a structure that will look dated even
before its 3,000 tons of structural steel
are sheathed in hothouse glass?
suggestion to Ave Maria: This
proposed chapel design is an error so egregious
that it requires immediate attention. Dump these
hideous plans. Hire a new architect, and start
afresh, this time with an eye toward creating a
beautiful house of God rather than simply an
enormous one. (See my book for a few
pointers.) Otherwise your school risks losing its
hard-earned credibility. Your university is a
promising one. Dont mar your reputation
with such an impractical eyesore.
S. Rose is the author a several books including
on church architecture including Ugly As Sin. 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 Cruxnews.com.