Houses of the Holy
For men of the cloth, architecture has always been one earthly delight they've been encouraged to indulge. In Arizona, DeBartolo Architects continues the tradition in a rather unorthodox manner.
Jesuit priests have a long history of building in the American Southwest, but nothing they’ve done over the past five centuries looks, or feels, quite like the Mariposa residence in Phoenix, Arizona. The concrete-and-glass compound, built to house priests teaching at a Catholic school in Phoenix, is a far cry from the stuccoed Spanish missions that marked the Jesuits’ earlier forays into desert architecture.
The small community of Jesuits at Brophy College Preparatory wasn’t trying to buck tradition, though. They just wanted something away from the hustle and bustle of campus that would help them live out their ideals of community and service.
“I loved the old building,” says Jim Flynn, rector of the community of ten Jesuits, but he admits the dormitory-style building had more than a few drawbacks: “Sharing the bathroom was a little much,” he says with a chuckle. The old residence, a 1928 Spanish colonial revival building in the middle of campus, left its current crop of Jesuits feeling isolated from each other and harried by the classroom bells and the crush of 1,200 students that surrounded them.
So the priests started thinking about a new house that would enable the group to improve their interactions with each other and be more quiet retreat than middle of the storm. “We had some vague ideas,” says Louis Bishop, one of the Jesuits. “We wanted somewhere we didn’t have to run all over the place . . . but we didn’t really know how to do that.”
Enter DeBartolo Architects. Michael Gilson, one of the newer priests at the school, says the Phoenix-based firm impressed the Jesuits during the initial interview by taking their desire to improve the way they lived seriously.After getting the commission, the architects even spent a night in the old residence to get a better sense of how the priests worked and relaxed.
Jack DeBartolo (known as Jack 3), the younger half of the father-and-son firm, says feeling the emptiness in the dormitory’s long hallways and hearing the noise of students outside their bedroom windows at 6:30 in the morning sparked visions of open, light-filled spaces made of simple materials like concrete, steel, and glass.
Both architects agreed that such a plan would not only cut down on the visual clutter in the house but would also keep costs down, an important thing when dealing with clients who’ve all taken vows of poverty. Convincing the Jesuits that a sleek, modernist building was the way to go would be another matter entirely.
“Most people think modernism has no sense of scale, [that] it’s cold and inhuman,” says the younger DeBartolo. “We had to show that we can reduce to essentials and still be comfortable.”
To that end, the DeBartolos gave the priests a little homework of their own. They handed out books on minimalism and light theory and prepared for the worst—but it never came.
Pleasantly surprised, the architects developed a plan calling for three rectangular buildings set parallel to the street and divided by tree-shaded courtyards. The first, which the priests have dubbed simply “Number One,” contains spaces for dining, conversation, andwatching TV. The open kitchen, offices, and library are off to oneside of this axis, while a north-facing window wall overlooks a courtyard on the other and floods the space with indirect sunlight (no small matter in a climate where summer temperatures top 115 degrees). The other two buildings contain bedrooms for the eight residents (two priests live in a school-owned house next door), a guest room, a small meeting room that doubles as an alternate media room, and a storage and utility room. Jack Jr. (the older DeBartolo) says the design is aimed at giving the residents multiple spaces they can use collectively or privately, a mantra that also extends into the bedrooms. Each one has its own bath, office, and sitting area levered into just 270 square feet. Flynn says he was surprised that cramming so many uses into one space doesn’t make it feel cramped. This bit of architectural wizardry is matched only by Mariposa house’s chapel.
Accessible by a door off the main courtyard, the 400-square-foot chapel is shockingly stark. Half the wall space is composed of translucent glass that allows light to spill onto the white walls and polished gray concrete floor, a muted color palette that only accentuates the brightly colored liturgical pieces by Arizona sculptor Mayme Kratz and the thin, brushed-aluminum cross hanging on the wall. “I like the lack of clutter,” Bishop says. “[It] allows me to pray the way I want. . . . It’s so simple.”
It’s an aesthetic that takes some getting used to, Gilson says, but it’s worth the effort in the end because, he feels, it has drawn all the residents of the house closer to God. “For the first time in my life, I’ve become really aware of how the space in which we live and what we see every day can have an impact on our lives and how we relate to each other,” he says.