The partnership of Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung has enjoyed a long and varied practice, but their firm had never designed a religious building until the Jesuit High School in Sacramento selected them to build a chapel. Inexplicably, the school had been using the gym for services since its modernist campus was constructed in the 1970s. Though Hodgetts is a non-believer and Fung a Buddhist, they had both explored modern churches on their travels, and they responded to the challenge of creating a spiritual journey. Sacred spaces liberate architects to focus on the basic elements of building and reach for the sublime.
“We developed three or four very different concepts and made about 27 small study models,” recalled Hodgetts. “The school has incredibly sophisticated students and they were involved in the review process, for the principal wanted this to be an educational experience for them. To our surprise, everyone preferred a single inchoate space.” One imagines that choice was influenced by their use of the gym, and the sense of openness and improvisation it had fostered. However, the first approved design included seven side chapels, and it was not until a new school president took over that these were eliminated from the plan.
As built, the Chapel of the North American Martyrs combines the drama of angular exterior geometries with gently curved interior walls that embrace the main sanctuary space, separating it from the peripheral areas. The architects sought to achieve a balance between masculine and feminine elements, creating a sculptural object in which the roof plane and the cement-board panels that clad the sidewalls are part of a single folded composition. The 10,800-square-foot building serves as a symbolic entrance to the campus; its roof profile tilts up to face a major boulevard before dropping down to the height of the adjacent existing classrooms. There are separate points of entry for students and the public, and the interior is conceived as a discrete structure sheltered within, like an egg in a nest.
The chapel opens up to the south through a glazed wall that is framed and partially shaded from the fierce summer sun by diagonal beams. To balance the conflicting demands of transparency and shade, the architects carefully calibrated a mix of colored, fritted, and clear glazing. The stained glass is set into boxes with a fritted outer layer that diffuses the sunlight and a saturated inner pane. It casts bars of colored light that are bent by the curvature of the inner walls and are backlit by the radiance of sunlight on white surfaces. “We chose colors that referred to the liturgical seasons, so that they carry symbolic meaning as well as animating and enriching the foyer,” explained Fung.
Acoustics are as crucial in a church as they are in a theater. In both, it is important to hear voices without amplification, but Hodgetts wanted this space to sound like a church so that choral music would reverberate and linger. The acoustic consultant wanted to make extensive use of baffles to distribute the sound evenly and eliminate hot spots produced by the curve of the walls. The architects pushed back, limiting the baffles to the upper level, and cladding the lower level with ribbed wood. As Hodgetts insisted, “sound should have highlights and shadows, just like light. That alternation gives the space a tactile feel.” Simple wood pews are grouped around the minimally furnished sanctuary, and the wall that divides it from the Lady Chapel behind is bathed in light from above.
“We wanted the space to work as well for an individual as a group,” said Fung, “but when there’s a congregation it feels very like theater in the round.” That experience may be realized quite literally, for the master plan that Hodgetts + Fung devised for the north tip of the campus extends the curving paths to define a hemi-circle on which the chapel may be joined by a theater when funds become available.