These are not good times for religious architecture. The number of people who identify with traditional denominations has declined precipitously in recent years, causing many churches and synagogues in the Philadelphia area to sell off their magnificent sanctuaries to the highest bidder. The ones that can’t be easily monetized are being unceremoniously demolished.
The loss has been especially painful because old religious structures are often the only buildings of architectural quality in many Philadelphia neighborhoods. Painstakingly constructed by skilled craftsmen using the finest materials, they embody the whole history of the city — its waves of immigration, the rise and fall of its industries, the births, deaths and milestones of generations. Their richly decorated facades are also works of art that both the faithful and nonbelievers can enjoy. Very few new buildings going up in Philadelphia today offer anything close to that level of visual pleasure and meaning.
Because I love a man-bites-dog story as much as any journalist, I’m happy to tell you that one of the region’s best new works of architecture is a religious building, a residence hall for Jesuit priests located just across City Avenue in Merion. Not only does Arrupe Hall’s existence run counter to the prevailing trends in the Catholic church, it is fashioned from brick and stone and constructed with the same devotion to craft as those older religious buildings. You don’t have to be a believer to swoon over the details.
Arrupe Hall makes its presence known the moment you turn off City Avenue onto Lapsley Lane. Although most of the street was long ago subsumed into the campus of St. Joseph’s University, the area still has the look of the moneyed enclave it once was, with mansion-sized houses that preside over immense lawns, including the temple-like art gallery that Paul Philippe Cret built for Albert Barnes. Arrupe Hall is a grand house, too. Just one that happens to come with a three-story-high, cylindrical chapel and dormitory-style rooms. The chapel’s tawny facade looks a bit like the kind of punch card programmers used to operate early computers.
Both the residence and the attached chapel are the work of Moto Design Shop, an Old City firm with an affinity for intricate brickwork and tricky facade screens. Moto’s partners — Roman Torres, Adam Montalbano and Eric Oskey — had been turning out large, expensive townhouses in Philadelphia when they got a call from the Jesuits’ Maryland Province (now, the Eastern Province) asking whether they could design a residence for its independent members — those priests who work as instructors and administrators in such places as St. Joseph’s University and St. Joseph’s Preparatory School. It was their first big project in which no developer was crunching numbers.
Like everything else connected with the Catholic church these days, the $12 million project was born out of a need to downsize, explained the Rev. Robert Hussey, the former head of the Province. Because the region’s population of independent Jesuits has dwindled to just more than a dozen, the Province thought it could easily fit everyone under one roof. That would allow the Province to get rid of its scattered houses and reduce its housing costs. St. Joseph’s University pitched in by offering to lease the Province a modest house on Lapsley Lane. When it proved too small, the Province decided to tear it down and build something new on the site, using funds from the Province’s budget.
Even though the Province’s goal was to save money in the long run, Hussey believed the Jesuits could still create something as architecturally ambitious as an earlier generation of church projects. “We knew this building would be here for a long time, and we wanted it to be modern, as well as explicitly religious,” he explained. Other than instructing Moto to use the same materials found on neighboring houses — Wissahickon schist, slate and brick — the Province gave the architects a free hand to be creative with Arrupe Hall, named after a Jesuit missionary who tended the wounded in Hiroshima.
Moto wasn’t fazed by the requirement to use traditional materials. At a time when metal panel facades are transforming the look of Philadelphia’s rowhouse blocks, Moto is one of a small contingent of local firms that has stuck with brick.
“Philadelphia is a brick city. We’re not fighting that; we’re embracing it,” said Oskey, who worked for Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates before joining Moto as its technical director.
But although many of the new brick rowhouses in Philadelphia reference their historic forebears, Moto’s are charting new territory. Their two best-known projects, a trio of houses on the 100 block of Walnut Street and a double-wide house on the 2200 block of Catharine, both have flat facades, a hallmark of modernism. But the surfaces are animated by patterned brick screens that seem to float in front of the real facade. At the Catharine Street house, which is owned by developer Stephen Rodriguez, Moto carved several curves into the screen, softening the rigid rowhouse geometry layered behind it and giving it a sculptural quality.
As an alumnus of Venturi Scott Brown, Oskey is deeply familiar with the theory behind such screens. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown believed that facades serve as architectural billboards and help broadcast the building’s various meanings. Moto’s screens function much differently; they’re more about obscuring than communicating. They act as a two-dimensional membrane, separating the viewer from the building.
Although Arrupe Hall is a single, integrated structure, Moto used different materials and architectural styles to distinguish the chapel from the dormitory areas. The residence is a thoughtful, well-crafted modern building, but one that may seem familiar to anyone who has spent time on college campuses. The chapel, by contrast, immediately stands out as something different. A 40-foot cross made from self-weathering steel, designed by Holzman Iron Studio in Philadelphia, marks the division between the two parts, and also defines it as a religious building.
From there, Moto’s brick screen unfolds like fabric — a metaphor, perhaps, for men of the cloth. The chapel’s cylinder is slightly canted. As the screen rounds the surface, the arrangement of bricks becomes ever more complex. Although the pattern may appear random, it is based on two Western calendars: the Julian version, which was adopted in 46 BC, and the Gregorian calendar, which was introduced by Pope Gregory XII in 1582. At some point, the two time lines merge.
Because each of the last 2021 years is represented by the brick courses, the chapel’s facade effectively charts the history of Christianity. Time is made visible. Or, at least that is Moto’s conceit. Whether you get it or not — and it’s unlikely anyone will without an explanation — the lively pattern energizes the structure. At night, the screen glows like a lace curtain hung in front of a candle.
The effects are even more interesting on the inside. Like Moto’s other screens, this is a freestanding wall that had to be held upright by steel rods attached to the main facade, a feat that required engineering help of Tom Normile at Keast & Hood. The screen’s openings allow a dappled light to filter into the chapel, a sublime and intimate space paneled with white oak. Although every detail is considered, the beauty comes from its spareness — just 12 chairs, a concrete altar and a crucifix sculpted by Deborah Luke.
The same restrained, handcrafted aesthetic prevails throughout the residence, which contains 15 rooms, as well as communal spaces for cooking, dining, watching television, and hosting guests. The rooms revolve around a spectacular, central staircase. You could imagine the feature in one of Moto’s luxury homes, but Hussey sanctioned the extravagance because it creates landings and nooks where residents can run into each other and talk. One of the project’s goals was to give priests from different workplaces the opportunity to live as a community. “The last thing we wanted was a long corridor that felt like a hotel,” Hussey told me.
Arrupe Hall is more like a welcoming inn, one that uses architecture to bring comfort and joy to its residents — and anyone else who happens to pass by.