Mark Cavagnero readily admits that his personal relationship with Catholicism ended after he attended a parish school as a child in Connecticut. So, when he received a request to interview for a commission to design a student chapel for a Catholic high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, he wasnâ€™t sure he was up to the task.
â€śMy faith had wavered, to say the least,â€ť Cavagnero recalls. But then he began to think about the intersection of spirituality and architecture in a broader wayâ€”as â€śidealized space that could offer empathy, with room for contemplation that may, or may not, include prayer.â€ť
That impulse is now embodied in a small structure of concrete and glass at the entrance to St. Maryâ€™s College High School, in Albany, California. Unapologetically modern yet suffused with tranquil warmth, it serves as a symbolic portal to the campus, as well as an open refuge for students seeking inspiration or solitude, often at conflicted times in their lives.
Unlike other buildings on the 12.5-acre campus, most of which were built as needed during the past 30 years and have a vague air of Mission Revival style, the 4,400-square-foot chapel makes a striking first impression. Just inside the campusâ€™s entry gate, off a shaded street of single-family homes, a rectangular concrete â€ś steepleâ€ť rises, its back pitched and its eastward face inset with glass that is divided into quarters by a thin metal cross. Around and behind the tower, like rectangular ridges beneath a mountain peak, the buildingâ€™s lower sections hold the chapel and a small sacristy.
The religious imagery is obvious. But the steeple, a great, hollowed-out light shaft, also allows morning sunlight to slice into the sanctuary, illuminating the altar, where a priest addresses the pupils, who often gather for brief talks or services before classes begin. Later in the day, when a student might come on his or her own, the altar fades into the shadows while the chapel is lit from behind.
â€śIt seemed important to break the room down into different scales,â€ť explains Cavagnero, who in 2015 won the coveted Maybeck Award from the AIA California Council. â€śI was thinking about what it would be like if I was going through a moment of stress in my life. Iâ€™d want a space where I could think and brood and wonder.â€ť
While the morning light is clean and direct, the afternoon sunâ€”entering through floor-to-ceiling glass panels at the chapelâ€™s southwest cornerâ€”fills the sanctuary with a diffused glow. A clerestory window of frosted glass, tucked along the north edge of the space, evens out the illumination without calling attention to itself.
The pews are white oak. So are the slats along the chapelâ€™s southern wallâ€”positioned not only to direct light toward the front of the chapel, but also to form a screen that blocks distracting outside views from the pews. The floor is smooth Alabama limestone. The vertical plane behind the altar is the same stone, but split-face, and the other walls are of white Portland cement. â€śThe best way to make a space thatâ€™s visually and spiritually quiet,â€ť suggests Cavagnero, â€śis to use as few elements as possible, and to keep them under control.â€ť
The architect was less successful, however, in his quest to make the chapel feel like a sanctuary entirely apart from the hectic commotion of a high school with more than 600 students, and other challenging conditions. Though the site parallels a creek lined with tall redwood treesâ€”hints of nature that filter into the chapel and its courtyardâ€”itâ€™s also bordered by a service road. The tower, meanwhile, faces a wide asphalt roadway and a utility building.
To counter these encroachments, the design moves the chapel entrance to the siteâ€™s rear, in a small courtyard, reached from the east by a pathway, flanked by Cavagneroâ€™s building on one side and, on the other, by a concrete wall that drops from 8 to 4 feet high as it nears the courtyard. When the three Japanese maples that are part of Andrea Cochranâ€™s landscape design grow in, the sense of passage should feel more natural. Itâ€™s an imaginative response to a challenging site, but a self-consciously choreographed one, as well.
Once inside the chapel, though, emotional resonance emerges in the way clean details are infused with higher purpose. The choice of the chalky-white Portland cement for the wallsâ€”its superlative quality being an expense that Cavagnero defended from value engineeringâ€”brings a subdued luster to a material that students and staff might otherwise dismiss as cold and stark. Thereâ€™s delicacy in the tall cross within the tower. The light in the chapel, diffused and entering from all sides, is at once comforting and solemn.
In the past, when religious faith was unquestioned, churches were designed to awe believers with majestic force. We live in a different, less doctrinaire ag