One of my most admired Philly firms has always been Erdy Mchenry (EM). Since their inception a little over a decade ago, they’ve consistently produced edgy buildings, always pushing the envelope on design. For a small firm of 12 people, the esthetic that comes out of that office never stagnates. Their rejuvenation of the Philadelphia urban fabric apparent in north and west Philly has been long overdue and highly welcome. Luckily for other envious cities, EM also has a handful of projects than cross state lines. One fine example is this soaring Church of St. Aloysius, costing $8 million and having a 1100 person capacity.
Completed in 2009, the end result of a tight working and personal relationship between pastor and architect . This church located in Jackson NJ is pitched like a giant white tent, evoking the nomadic life of the original worshippers. It was Scott Erdy who came up with this unusual symbology for a church design and like all things unusual, the idea wasn’t initially greeted well by the community who expected a church to look like..well, a church.
It’s a good thing that architects are stubborn creatures who have vision that mere laymen do not appreciate. Also, Father Scott believed in this vision and together the idea took form. It was the first church commission for EM and like the rest of their work, this project started to accumulate accolades for it’s design and use of materials. Right from the main thoroughfare in this small town, you do a double take when you drive past this building. In a landscape littered with vinyl sided ranch and colonial homes, its striking hyperbolic paraboloid roof is a reprieve from the mundane. It is even more evident when you step into the church. Bright, uncluttered and connected to the sky via large expanses of glass one easily fuses a connection between your person and a higher being.
The roof was no easy feat. It’s shape, a complex hyperbolic paraboloid was one that required structural engineer and architect Daniel Tully to come out of retirement to design his patented fabrication of this construction. He was concerned at first that the curtainwall was set back from the edge of the roof eave as it had never been done before and would have an impact on wind uplift loads. Months of calculations and engineering prowess later, the overhang did work using an 82′-0″ laminated beam to create the roofline. Six buttresses anchor down the whole system. I appreciated the detailing in which every joint was exposed and on display. It was a celebration of all the parts that formed the whole. Nothing to hide.
As a matter of fact, every detail was thoughtfully executed which was the next thing that impressed me after the roof. The architect employed an underfloor heating system that radiates heat up to about a 6-foot level, efficiently warming the occupied space. In the warmer months, the well hidden cooling system is deployed , blowing cold air up from cleverly concealed spherical vents from the four corners of the church – above the choir, sacristy, altar and baptismal font. The cold air hits the undulating ceiling and drops down onto the congregants, evenly and best of all silently! There is no hum of fans and motors that frequently create white noise in large halls. The result is crisp clear unadulterated acoustics throughout the church.
Another neat trick of engineering was the fountain for the baptismal font. The marble font was part of the original church (which is connected to this new addition and now used as overflow space and other multipurpose functions) and carved down by 4” to allow water to gently cascade to the new pool below it. In lieu of an exorbitant fountain system, EM devised a clever yet simple tucked away piping system that enabled the water to continuously circulate and be purified. I even got a peek into the mechanical room, it wasn’t very fancy but it did the trick.
Okay, you may be bored of me going on about systems. I’ll refocus on the funner aesthetic parts of the building. I think the photos will speak volumes. One of the striking elements were the pendant lights that are draped from the ceiling that represent the coming together of the congregation as one light force. When night falls, light reflects on glass and 170 luminaires turn into 500. I wish I managed to return in the evening to see this vision but alas there was no time.
While the origins of design were inspired by history, the overarching feel of St. Aloysius is definitely of the 21st century. Clean lines and sharp composisiton is apparent all around. From the choir to the altar, EM uses light natural materials to balance the solid slabs of marble and concrete. Little details like embedding thermostat and fire alarms into stone veneer wall, carving out niches for these essential components makes you realize that the architect didn’t think any item was too lowly to be given attention to.
Special thanks to Father Scott Shaffer and his brother John for giving us such an enthusiastic tour of St. Aloysius.