I was able to visit the new town, campus and chapel of Ave Maria University near Naples, Florida this weekend, and offer some pictures and comments. First, it should be said that university founder and pizza mogul Tom Monaghan should be commended for his desire to help renew Catholic learning and culture. He should also be commended for designing a town for his university based on new urbanist principles which value community and pedestrian-scaled public spaces. The chapel, however, is a disastrous embarrassment.
A scale-less, style-less letterhead logo grown large, the chapel is a plague on the whole attempt to blaze a forward-looking trail in Catholic art and architecture. The word on the street is that Monaghan loves Frank Lloyd Wright, and wanted to imitate his architecture. Of course, there are no FLW Catholic churches out there, so he looked to a Wright disciple, architect Faye Jones, for inspiration. Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel is a lovely little non-denominational chapel in the woods which is almost anti-architectural since it is mostly glass and machine-cut beams. Blow this up on steroids, hire an architect of lesser gifts, micromanage the design and you get the Ave Maria chapel.
Again, I have no desire to be uncharitable. The intention here is no doubt good. The result, however, is poor. A church building should start by being a theological project that takes a built form. This is known as a theological aesthetic. It should not take an earthly aesthetic preference (Frank Lloyd Wright, for example) and try to make a chapel out of it. This is an aesthetic theology. For more on this, see this article from Sacred Architecture.
The campus buildings of Ave Maria University are large, long and gray. They share a few lines with Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Robie House in Chicago. They are set, however, amidst a town of Mediterranean inspiration and a chapel of Wright-Jones-local architect inspiration. The grouping simply doesn’t hold together. Moreover, the details of the “classical” town buildings fail in many places as the columns and their ornament are simply designed wrong. These architectural “typos” only lessen the credibility of the otherwise pretty good urbanist design.
What could have been, indeed should have been, the single greatest opportunity to showcase serious traditional design and culture has instead become a “what-a-waste,” an “if only” and a “too bad.”