Can a Building Symbolize Time? 

The intricate facade of a new residence at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia explores the mathematical sleight-of-hand needed to transition from one calendar to another.

A very brief history of the Christian calendar: In 46 BC, the Julian calendar, proposed by Julius Caesar, began counting the length of the solar year—inaccurately. As a result of this epic error, as centuries passed, Easter slipped inexorably further off the spring equinox, as if Mother Nature herself meant to repudiate Christ’s rebirth. To remedy this, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed a switch from the Julian to the more accurate Gregorian calendar. When Britain and colonial America finally adopted the new timetable in 1752, they “lost” 11 days in September and birthdates shifted: For example, Ben Franklin, born on January 6 by the Julian calendar, would now, by the Gregorian, celebrate on January 17.

We tend to mistake the calendar for a law of nature, but it has never been written in stone. Until now. Today, the transition between the two calendars has been commemorated in the unorthodox form of a residence hall’s chapel.

Local office Moto Designshop recently completed Arrupe Hall on the Philadelphia campus of Saint Joseph’s University as a 15,000 square foot residence for priests and a hub for Jesuit life. In keeping with the order’s hybrid spiritual and worldly character—and the fact that one of its priests helped facilitate that late-16th-century papal reform— the building speaks to both modernity and tradition and includes a geometric representation of the transition between Julian and Gregorian methods of time keeping.

building exterior evening, illuminated from inside
Each of the chapel’s 123 courses of bull nose and header brick represents approximately four years of the calendar. One pattern records the shifting dates of Easter other holy days, the other the more general mathematical shifts that resulted from the Gregorian reform.

Situated on a formerly residential lane on campus, Arrupe is named for Pedro Arrupe, who served as the Superior General of the Society of Jesus from 1965-1983. The architecture looks contemporary, but it is also a collage of materials that echoes the Collegiate Gothic and Federal architectural styles of the buildings surrounding it. The various programs inside are identifiable from the outside: steel, glass, and local Wissahickon Schist stonework clad the shared residences, slate covers the individual residences, and orange-hued brick adorns the slightly conical chapel.

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It’s the furled form of the chapel’s facade—marked from afar by a 40-foot-tall, weathering steel cross—that symbolizes the transition between calendars. Each of its 123 courses of bull nose and header brick, supported by a complex steel substrate and reinforced with rebar, represents approximately four years. Its textured filigree—openings in the brickwork and the extension outward of the bull-nose bricks—visualizes the mathematical sleight-of-hand that has been necessary to keep the astronomical and calendar years in alignment. One pattern records the shifting dates of Easter and its attendant holy days, the other the more general mathematical shifts that resulted from the Gregorian reform. In a single building, the chapel really does represent a very brief history of time.

The residence hall, unified by a skylit central stair, is also home to gathering spaces such as a patio, meeting rooms, and a dining hall.

As Moto partner and technical director Eric Oskey explains: “All of this was done through mathematics, bricks, and geometry.”

Inside, public and private spaces are connected by a light-soaked, slatted-oak stairwell, ensuring that community members meet in passing, and reinforcing the belief in community-building for which Jesuits are so well-known. (The chapel’s rounded interior is similarly clad with timber slats, and is also lit via a large skylight.) The residence contains several much-needed campus gathering spaces, including a patio, meeting rooms, parlors, a large residential kitchen, and a dining hall.

“The communication and connection as a brotherhood was very important to them in regards to how the building worked,” says Moto partner and technical director, Eric Oskey. “We made sure to design moments for them to cross paths and connect.” 

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