While I was a away recently I had the particular joy of visiting the oratory at Ave Maria University. Its location itself is quite a thing to experience. One drives for quite awhile past nothing but tomato farms before coming across a grand stone sign with a water fall about it that proclaims in an astonishing new and clean sign, "Ave Maria University."
But the drive is not done yet. One crosses a bridge and drives a bit down fine streets with manicured flora before hitting the first bit of real town life sprouting up out of the tomato fields. Like any town first you hit fine modest homes, then passing out of strictly neighborhoods one starts to see the university buildings and then a lively but small downtown. At the heart of all of it is the Ave Maria Oratory. It stands majestic and proudly surrounded by what some day is hoped to be a thriving metropolis.
Long time readers no I have little tolerance for so called modern architecture which accomplishes little but making our churches look like airport terminals or modern art museums on the outside and living rooms on the inside. Every once in a while though something new and interesting will appear on the Catholic radar screen however.
Ave Maria takes the best elements of traditional church architecture and combines them with new ideas and materials. One of the most exciting, I believe, is the use of steel beams something that I always have thought of doing. Instead of hiding them they are displayed in an artistic way - they are celebrated! They are not used simply to support a building that is had a thin facade of another style of architecture.
Amazingly there are no stained glass windows and one does not miss them. The oratory is lit by somewhat obscured windows that allow light to filter in and give a warm glow to the structure. Because the building is supported by exterior beams (another idea I always had a dream of trying) there are no pillars to obstruct the view (and I like pillars but this is cool.)
Much of the ornamentation is not yet completed. The apse looks striking bare behind the ornately carved crucifix. Future plans are to greatly enhance this area. There are other elements still missing such as the rose window, the pipe organ, the carving over the front doors and various other projects for which they are currently collecting donations.
The time afforded to be spent looking around the building was short so many advantages and disadvantages of the architecture were probably overlooked. If I were to offer any critique the first would probably be the lack of any real space in the narthax. Then again, the building is in Naples Florida and not north east Ohio and it does have a generous plaza area. Here one approaches the building across a vast paved area the accentuates the building and presents it like a piece of art making it inviting to enter (another thing I find lacking in many "new" churches.) And while the pews are stunningly beautiful, the artwork on the ends are art for art sake rather than having any liturgical decoration. An argument could be made that not every piece of art and architecture needs be religious in a church - it is just my opinion.
The great thing about the building is that it works for where it is. The sunny weather in Naples allows for much light coming in through the slim windows, the warm weather allowing for an outdoor gathering space, and the massive use of steel will contrast well with the landscaping planned. For all of these reasons it probably would not work well in the north where we are cold and lightless much of the year. And the great use of exterior steel in an over developed part of town would not be unique and interesting but an addition to the coldness and drabness of the area.
Not only do you need a good building you need it in the right place. In Akron we have a couple of examples of great architecture in the wrong place. E. J. Thomas Hall is a stunning building (though lacking a grand entrance that is actually used.) But it and its environs are built entirely of cement. It in turn is surrounded by railroad tracks and industrial like buildings and parking lots (though its lot has more recently improved) and instead of rising like the monument it should it gives a cold (or in the summer hot) continuation of the drabness around it. The new museum is the same. It is a great building made entirely of glass. But inside what do you have to look at? A parking deck.
I hope you get the chance to see this building - but nobody will accidentally find themselves there. Unless you purposefully decide to go to Ave Maria there is little chance you might inadvertantly stumble upon it some day. But if you are looking for a school or happen to be in Naples for some reason (or if you are planning on building a church) pop by.