No one could ever say Naples architect Victor Latavish lacks spirit in any sense of the word. The lively 45-year-old recently was honored with two prestigious awards from the Florida divisions of the American Institute of Architects: The Florida Association's Individual Anthony L. Pullara Honor Award and the Florida Southwest Chapter's W.R. Frizzell Medal of Honor. Add these to a long list of awards for specific projects from both private and government organizations.
But the spirit most conspicuous in Latavish's work is the quality he brings to his houses of worship. Anyone who thinks designing a church, synagogue, mosque or meeting house is a simple exercise in assembling standard elements of religious structures should have a look at the religious institutions born on the Latavish drawing board. And he doesn't mince words when discussing his intent: "A cheap metal shoe-box building with a fiberglass steeple, or an ornate
Mediterranean revival building decorated with arches-these can be more offensive than a screaming car commercial."
One of the forms found most often in a Latavish building is a peaked-roof element that brings to mind the prow of a great ship. This soaring thrust is carried inside, defining the height and angles of the interior.
Think of it: the power of naval architecture in the nave of a church. Yes, the word comes from the Latin root meaning "ship." Think again: The interiors of great churches, cathedrals, synagogues and mosques past resemble nothing more than the inverted hull of a great naval vessel. Think of soaring Gothic arches, or the high ceilings of a New England meeting house. Recall also the Christian traditions built around sailing and fishing, and the modern metaphors that have come to us in the stories of the disciples of Jesus at the Sea of Galilee-not to mention the great Greek and Phoenician seafarers carrying out the desires of their gods. Think ark: Noah's Ark and the Ark of the Covenant, enduring symbols in monotheistic religions.
This is not coincidence so far as Latavish is concerned. He believes spaces for worship, fellowship and meditation can themselves carry a strong spiritual force. In effect, the design of the space-the way in which its dimensions, volumes, colors and materials interact-can determine its impact on the mind, body and soul. Hence the creation of the nave as the vessel of the spirit.
This isn't so hard to accept. It's no stretch to suppose that many of us remember entering a space that, in of itself, soothes the spirit. We also remember spaces that do just the opposite, stirring up discomfort and unease. Houses can seem restful or uncomfortable, and it's difficult to specify just what there is in the design to cause such widely disparate reactions. We often refer to karma or Feng Shui as ways to justify our instinctive evaluations.
How much more likely, then, that a building designed to shelter a religious experience should have a similar impact. Ancient architects often ascribed these feelings to the place, the site itself, frequently building new structures for new religions atop the old. Many Christian churches in Europe lie above the sites of "pagan" temples, presumably in order to transmit psychic and spiritual energy to new believers while recycling both building materials and human habits to fit the new faith.
Lofty concepts such as these notwithstanding, the task of today's architect of religious structures is to find a way to create structures to serve the needs of modern congregations-and to do so within the financial and regulatory restrictions that apply in each case. A recent visit to several houses of worship designed by Latavish provided useful examples of both modest and elaborate buildings, structures of varying sizes and differing costs. What they have in common, however, is more important: that sense of spiritual space, of shelter and welcome.
Our tour began, appropriately, at the architect's first church in Naples: St. Monica's Episcopal Church, a modest building intended to serve as the first phase of a larger plan. Modest or no, this multipurpose structure is disproportionately effective in the way it exudes a calming influence on the visitor-particularly one who's just come off hectic I-75. The distinctive prow is there, over an unmistakable front door, the essential "processional entrance"; the ceiling is high and peaked, lined with beautiful light wood (another Latavish trademark), leading the eye and mind to a simple altar bathed in natural light.
A similar sense of repose-albeit expressed on a larger scale-is found at Marco Lutheran Church on Marco Island, where the ceilings of beautifully crafted blond wood provide an outstanding acoustic environment. Although no service was in progress during our visit, simple tests confirmed the architect's verdict: The sound is angelic. And the space is certainly spiritual, once again using the upward thrust of a bold roof line and cleverly integrated natural and artificial light to define the environment for worship and prayer.
Quite another look is found at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, also on Marco Island. A subtle flavor of New England dominates the building. Perhaps it's the handsome bell tower over the main entrance, or perhaps the soaring white arches and white pews in the interior. Whatever the reason, it's ecclesiastical architecture at its contemporary best-even though it's expressed in a traditional vocabulary.
The Unitarian-Universalist Church of Naples has some of the same simple appeal: clean interior spaces flooded with light and opening to nature. If it weren't disrespectful (or even if it is), one would defy anyone not to find some element of solace in spaces such as these. And in our world, solace is not something to be dismissed lightly. Similar impressions were gained from visits to Mayflower Congregational Church, St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church and Wesley United Methodist Church.
A work in progress but a building of enormous impact, the Roman Catholic Church of Pope John XXIII was a suitable end to the tour. Still in the throes of construction, the building is poised to become a major element in Southwest Florida's architectural landscape. In it, Latavish has employed his familiar vocabulary on a scale that is rare today. This is a major structure, one of high energy and high liturgical drama. A building designed to induce awe and exaltation in the worshipper, it's clearly the dual product of architectural expertise and spiritual energy. Perhaps Latavish himself provides the best summary of his standards and goals: "Religious architecture of all kinds should always be influenced by faith, site, context and its place in time. It must maintain an instantly recognizable dignity and reflect the spirit of its congregation."