With the completion earlier this month of the St. Katharine Drexel Chapel for Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, Cesar Pelli and the architectural firm he heads have added the first house of worship–among its smallest projects at 12,000 square feet–to their vast portfolio. The project represents a long-held goal of the firm’s founder and of the university as well—the original blueprints for the university, founded in 1925, included a chapel that was never built.
“I have always been attracted to the idea of designing a building with a spiritual purpose,” says Pelli, whose New Haven- based firm, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, has many skyscrapers in its roster, such as the Petronas Towers (1994) in Kuala Lumpur. The architect says he was further inspired to take on the chapel project after meeting Xavier’s president, Dr. Norman Francis, and hearing the story of the university’s founder, Katharine Drexel. A nun from a wealthy Philadelphia family, Drexel founded Xavier in 1925; the only historically black Catholic university.
A free-standing chapel was part of the original vision for the Xavier campus but was deferred for classroom space. In 2000, planning for the chapel started in earnest in recognition of the canonization of St. Katharine Drexel. But Hurricane Katrina flooded the campus with six feet of water in August 2005. Storm damage to some other buildings on campus delayed the start of the project by about four years. Now complete, the chapel’s striking octagonal silhouette and visibility from the city’s main highway has established it as one of the city’s newest landmarks.
The architects gave the new chapel a limestone base and a copper dome to make it compatible with the light colors and green roofs of other campus buildings. (The brown roof will oxidize to green over time.) The roof was angled, Pelli said, to draw the maximum amount of daylight into the chapel and to offer a prominent place for the chapel’s cross. Inside the chapel’s main 65-foot-tall sanctuary, pews are arranged in a circular pattern with a marble alter at its center. Covering the structure’s skylights are series of veil-like aluminum screens intended to obscure the source of light. “I wanted the light to come in so that you feel that you are in a space that is lit in a mysterious way,” Pelli explains. Brilliant blue and yellow stain glass windows, by the artist Jose Bedia, represent the Stations of the Cross and complement the neutral palette of the interior. The sanctuary’s focal point is a 12-foot-tall wooden statue of Christ hung so that it appears to be floating in air. The New Orleans firm of Waggonner & Ball Architects served as local architects for the $10 million project.