In this debut memoir, a building designer asserts that divine inspiration helped turn an offbeat chapel into a jewel.
Pittsburgh-based architect Astorino was called to Rome in 1993 to consult on a proposed residence hall in Vatican City for visiting cardinals and bishops. The project stirred public controversy because the proposed structure would block views of St. Peter’s Basilica. As he devised a new design that lowered the building’s height, the process flowed so rapturously, he says, that he “felt like a pencil in someone’s hand.” However, Vatican bureaucrats resisted the plan. The devout author was bitterly disappointed, but then he experienced an epiphany in which the Holy Spirit prompted him to follow “the path of inner surrender and resignation.” Later, the Vatican commissioned him to design a small chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit. After praying for guidance, he and his colleagues received a burst of inspiration that “felt natural and comfortable…as if someone were holding our hands.” The result was an innovative, modernist design based on triangle motifs, featuring a series of sharply peaked roofs, a marble floor of richly colored triangular grids, and a glass partition looking out on an ancient Roman wall hung with sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross. The chapel is so inviting, Astorino says, that it’s become Pope Francis’ favorite place to celebrate Mass. (The book also includes an admiring tribute to Pope Francis’ intellect, avoidance of luxury, love of the poor, and willingness to pose for pictures with pilgrims.) Astorino and debut co-author Carney, a Franciscan nun, infuse this engaging architectural appreciation and procedural with Catholic ardor throughout: “The lighting system—its source recessed and carefully hidden—would augment the contemplative atmosphere of the chapel and reflect the mystery of the Holy Spirit.” They also illustrate the heartfelt remembrance with many sumptuous photographs of the finished chapel as well as of various blueprints, models, and other Vatican scenes, including Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and Swiss Guards in their particolored pantaloons. Overall, this book will surely captivate architecture mavens and fans of Vatican atmospherics.
An intricate, visually lavish dive into a religiously influenced creative process.