Thomas Aquinas College's New Chapel

Interview With Architect Duncan Stroik

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SOUTH BEND, Indiana, APRIL 24, 2009 ( The Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California was dedicated last month by the Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony.

The chapel, which figures prominently at the head of the main quadrangle at Thomas Aquinas College, was a project spearheaded by Thomas Dillon, the former president of the small college. Dillon was killed in a car accident in Ireland last week. His funeral was held today in the chapel.

Duncan Stroik, a leading figure in the new renaissance of sacred architecture, designed the structure. In this interview with ZENIT, the architect discusses the design of the Thomas Aquinas College chapel, the particular challenges in its construction, and his work designing sacred spaces in other parts of the United States.

Stroik is a professor of classical architecture at the University of Notre Dame, and is the editor of the journal Sacred Architecture.

Q: You designed the Thomas Aquinas Chapel, which was dedicated last month. How did this commission come about? Who was it for?

Stroik: The Thomas Aquinas College chapel has been an amazing journey for the college and for me as the architect. Our commission came out of an invited competition with two of the finest Catholic architects in the United States — Thomas Gordon Smith and Michael Imber. We met with many of the board members and faculty, but the leading visionary for the chapel and its design was Thomas Dillon, the president of the college.

Due to Dillon’s passion for the design and his desire to test our design empirically led us to visit buildings across California, the United States and Europe. The $23 million building is a reinforced masonry structure with a concrete base and a wood and steel roof. It was dedicated March 7, on the original feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, which also means that it will always be a feast day for the college (even during Lent).

Q: Where did you draw inspiration for the chapel? Past? Present? Europe? United States?

Stroik: The existing campus is inspired by the Spanish missions of California with the chapel as the head of the quadrangle both physically and symbolically. The chapel begins as an early Christian basilica and then develops spatially and architecturally in light of the last 1,500 years. In designing the chapel I grew to appreciate the inventiveness of early Renaissance architects like Brunelleschi as they sought to bring to life the ancient principles of architecture they had seen in Rome.

That, in some ways, is the same goal of many classical architects today as we seek to reconnect to the tradition that was all but severed by the dark night of modernism. Yet, since we can also learn from the sophisticated architecture of the last 500 years, I felt driven to improve upon Brunelleschi and the early Christian basilicas. This is not so much ego, but a desire to create a temple of God that is worthy of his perfection.

Q: How does the chapel reflect St. Thomas Aquinas?

Stroik: I believe that the chapel learned a lot from St. Thomas. First, the name «Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity» reflects St. Thomas’ highest work of theology on the Trinity. And much of the symbolism inside and out refers to the life of Mary as she lived it in communion with the Trinity.

It is also a cerebral architecture, an architecture of faith and reason where the natural light draws one up to the eternal light. It has an explicit geometric ordering, a simple color scheme, and a complex articulation of hierarchy from the design of the facade, to the narthex, to the soaring nave until it reaches its crescendo with the dome and altar. Dillon and I sought to bring about St. Thomas’ three conditions or principles of beauty: integrity, proportion and clarity. It is my hope that people will see and feel this beauty.

Q: What were the particular challenges in designing this structure?

Stroik: There were a number of challenges in designing the chapel. First we were asked to make the chapel prominent enough to be seen from afar, yet in scale with the existing two-story campus buildings. Second was to build it onto a steep hill while limiting our disturbance of the landscape and the great oaks. Third was to incorporate the columns and arches of the early Christian basilicas within a cruciform plan with a dome at the crossing. Fourth, was meeting the seismic codes of California in the structure. Sometimes, these types of challenges lead one to compromise, but in this case I believe they helped create a much better chapel!

Q: Cardinal Roger Mahony consecrated the chapel. What was his impression?

Stroik: Cardinal Mahony and I had a nice chat before the dedication began about the history of the Los Angeles Cathedral. He told me that the cathedral took about five years from start of design to finish, which is awfully quick. This chapel took nine years!

He also related that with the increase in construction costs that it would cost twice as much to build today, or $380 million. His Eminence was very complimentary about the chapel. It was a stunning dedication Mass with beautiful ritual and Christological symbolism.

Q: You have designed many major churches over the years, such as the new shrine in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, All Saints in Kentucky and now the Cathedral in Sioux Falls, what would you say characterizes your body of architectural work?

Stroik: Each of our projects seeks to connect with the architectural context of the locale, including materials, details and motifs. That being said, we endeavor to combine the regional with the universal in such a way that the churches should stand for centuries and never go out of style. Because the central identity of the church building is as a house of God, I try to make the plan as efficient as possible so that we can spend money on an ennobling façade and a transcendent interior.

Color, materials and details can go from simple elegance to ornate, but there is always an emphasis on beautiful proportions and monumental scale. Seeing these churches as part of a continuum and a conversation across time, we are not afraid to learn from precedent — although when all is said and done I believe the buildings sing their own song. It is the beauty and perfection of God that we seek to emulate in these new domus Dei’s.

Q: After the motu proprio of Benedict XVI in 2006 liberalizing the extraordinary rite of the Mass, how has your work changed? Are there any new aspects to church design growing out of this papal decree?

Stroik: With the motu proprio «Summorum Pontificum,» which allows great freedom for the celebration of the Tridentine Mass, I think we will see some positive changes to our new and existing churches. In my experience, the younger priests are the ones open to learning about the extraordinary form along with the architectural implications. I would argue that all churches should be designed to accommodate both forms of the Mass, the Novus Ordo and the Tridentine.  In general this means providing altar rails, sanctuaries with steps, and large altars that can be used from both sides, like the ancient basilicas. These are all most welcome developments and things that can enrich all of our churches with a sense of the sacred.

During the past 15 years, we have tried to incorporate these elements because we believed they were theologically and architecturally appropriate. For instance, even though the design of the chapel at Thomas Aquinas College was finished over four years ago, it had a Novus Ordo dedication Mass, a Novus Ordo Mass in Latin, and a Tridentine Mass on March 7 and 8.

Ironically, the traditional churches, not the modernist churches, are more accommodating to both forms of the liturgy, as well as creating a transcendent realm within our materialistic culture.

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