The Courtier Interview: Dome Design for the National Shrine in Washington, D.C.

Recently I sat down with my friend Ryan Mullen, whom I know through the Young Adults Group of my parish of St. Stephen Martyr, for an architecture-based chat, one of my favorite things to do as an armchair architect. Ryan and his colleague, John-Paul Mikolajczyk, gained national attention for the liturgical furniture they designed, which was used by Pope Benedict XVI for the Papal Mass here in Nationals Stadium last April. Ryan is currently pursuing graduate studies in architecture at Catholic University of America.

Ryan and JP were recently short-listed as one of four entry finalists in a student competition for the conceptual design of the interior of the Trinity Dome of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, D.C. Images of their submission appear at the end of this interview. The Shrine, which was named a minor basilica in 1990, is the largest church in the Western Hemisphere. The enormous central Trinity dome remains unfinished on the interior of the church and is the subject of this competition, which will be decided on March 23rd.

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William: Ryan, tell me about the design competition that is underway for the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Ryan: The idea for the competition started this past Summer/Fall when the Shrine contacted the architecture department at CUA [Catholic University of America]. They were impressed by the outcome of the student competition process for the liturgical furnishings that were used for the Papal Mass at Nationals Stadium last Spring here in DC. So JP [John-Paul Mikolajczyk] and I and the Dean of the CUA Architecture Department met with representatives of the Shrine. We discussed what role the architecture school and students might play in the development of the design for the Trinity Dome at the Shrine.

They explained to us that when they designed and installed the mosaics for the last two domes (the Redemption and Incarnation domes) it was a lengthy process. They asked for design submission from the artists, then reviewed them for resubmission, and so on. Each iteration took a long time, maybe 6 months for each iteration turnaround.

William: What kind of time frame did the Basilica give the CUA students?

Ryan: The competition kicked off on Wednesday, February 23, and submissions were due Thursday, March 12.

William: That’s not a lot of time for a project of this size!

Ryan: It’s more time than we had for the liturgical furnishings for the Papal Mass, but I think this one is a bit harder, because a little more depth has to go into the design. The altar for the papal Mass was sort of a one-shot deal. The dome will be there for ages, hopefully.

William: And I understand that you and JP have made the shortlist for your dome design?

Ryan: Yes, there are 4 “finalists” and JP and I are one of them.

William: Congratulations, that is fantastic.

Ryan: Thanks! Just to clarify some things, though, so people don’t think that the Shrine has decided to let some handful of students design the central dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the point of this whole competition is not to arrive with some final designs that will be built as-is, but rather to “jump-start” the design process by giving the Shrine a range of ideas that the Shrine can then take to the artists.

William: Do you know how long the design process took on the interiors for the previous Redemption and Incarnation domes?

Ryan: I don’t know. From my talks with the folks over at the Shrine, it sounded like most of the time was spent waiting for the artists to resubmit a new design/rendering (drawing), or waiting for the iconography committee to review the new design.

William: And what is the size of those two domes, are they the same?

Ryan: The Redemption and Incarnation Domes are the same size, 54 feet in diameter.

William: Which is pretty massive.

Ryan: But one thing to note about the Redemption and Incarnation domes is that they are not half-spheres.

William: What are they, then?

Ryan: The half-spheres have been bisected by the gustavino arches, so that the area is reduced. You can compare this to the Trinity Dome, which is an almost complete half sphere (with the exceptions of the windows and the occulus lights). The result of the Incarnation and Redemption Domes being “chopped up” is that it is easier to view the entire area of each of these domes from many points on the ground.

William: I see how that works. A more facile surface for decoration.

Ryan: Not only is the Trinity Dome an almost complete half-sphere, it is also resting on large arches, which in effect tuck the dome higher up, further limiting its visibility – or its mystery, depending on how you look at it.

William: Now the Trinity Dome is much bigger, I take it.

Ryan: It’s 88 feet in diameter. It is located over the crossing of the Basilica, i.e. the crossing of the nave and transept.

William: And for those who have not been to Washington, the dome of the Basilica is a rather prominent landmark on the horizon, no?

Ryan: I would say so – it’s big and blue.

William: Well, the exterior may be blue, but the interior is…what, right now?

Ryan: The interior is sort of a white/off-white color. When the Shrine was completed, the dome surfaces were finished with plaster temporarily, until the time (and funding) came to cover them in mosaic.

William: So this is one of the big projects, not just in terms of location, but in sheer size, that remains to be completed on the Basilica.

Ryan: The Trinity Dome will be the largest surface contiguously covered in mosaic in the Shrine, when complete.

William: What parameters did the representatives of the Basilica give the CUA students with respect to designing the dome’s interior? Were you limited in terms of theme, or iconography?

Ryan: I’m not sure of the specific history or development of the themes for the mosaics, but at some point in the past, perhaps when the original design was being developed, the themes of all the major domes’ mosaics were determined. In other words, the Shrine knew that the Incarnation Dome was going to be the Incarnation Dome before they even began to design it. The theme for the Trinity Dome was already determined.

The description given was to have images of the Trinity and Mary appear on the dome surface. Underneath the dome runs a ring on which will be written the Creed. The four pendentives (triangular-shaped sections of spheres) are going to have images of the 4 major councils that concern doctrine of the Trinity: Nicea I, Ephesus, Lateran IV, and Florence.

William: So the themes are already set in stone – so to speak – and the design has to do with the variations that could be achieved within those parameters.

Ryan: Yes. For example, in the depiction of the Trinity, is Jesus shown as crucified? Is he shown as a lamb? As a symbol? Is the Trinity arranged in a line? In a triangle? How big are the figures? Should they dominate the entire dome like the Christ in Majesty does in the Shrine’s apse? Or should the figures in the dome appear to be of equal size among other figures, etc. Some decisions might be more doctrinal in nature, some might be more aesthetic in nature

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William: I want to talk about your design for the competition, but before we do that, let’s talk a little bit about how you got interested in architecture in the first place.

Ryan: I always consider myself an engineer before I consider myself an architect. I like to think of myself as an engineer with an architect’s hat.

I’m not exactly sure how I became interested in architecture, but I will say that I played with Legos, Brio trains, K’Nex, etc. as a kid. I was always interested in building things and making things.

I built a working motor from scratch, my brother and I finished our tree house that my dad started, and I helped my dad build a chicken coop. In high school I was on our school’s FIRST team, a competition where schools build robots that compete against each other.

William: Wait a minute: dueling robots?

Ryan: Yes, FIRST is a program that was started in NH by Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway. High schools partner up with sponsors and businesses like machines shops, to design and build robots that compete in a game that changes each year. It usually involves some variation of collecting balls and putting them in goals.

William: That is brilliant.

Ryan: FIRST stands for “For Inspirations and Recognition of Science and Technology”.

William: No rocket launchers, though?

Ryan: No. But it was a lot of fun. They give each team a couple of crates of motors, controllers, pieces of metal and such, from which they can build their robot. It’s basically sports for nerds.

William: How did the interest in things like robots eventually lead you into architecture?

Ryan: Well, I guess the idea of “making things” sort of evolved into “making buildings”. When I went off to college, I didn’t know anything about architecture. I never knew any architects. I don’t know exactly where the idea came to look into architecture, but I was looking at schools that had both architecture and engineering. CUA has a special dual-degree program, architecture and civil engineering, so that if I found out that architecture wasn’t for me, I could switch to civil engineering, or even to some other type of engineering such as mechanical, etc. Or, if I found out that I liked architecture better, I could switch to that.

I couldn’t decide which one I liked better, so I stuck with the dual-degree program, and graduated with both. I continued with architecture in graduate school for two reasons: in order to be a licensed architect I needed a Master’s degree, and also I liked architecture better than civil engineering – although I must say, I like engineering as a whole almost as much as I like architecture.

William: You wouldn’t be the first architect to undertake a serious study of civil engineering. Michelangelo, Gaudi, Mies van der Rohe…

Ryan: I figure that when you build or make something, it should look nice, but it should also stand up and work.

William: I’m wondering whether you have an opinion on trends or fashions in architecture that would go along with this. The popular thing now seems to be using lots of computerized lights to decorate the facade of your building. Ten years from now, it might be all the rage to put buildings back up on stilts again. Who knows.

Ryan: Well, I definitely try not to get sucked into things just because they are popular or trendy, and that extends to everything in my life. I don’t care what clothes are popular or not, what building styles are popular or not, etc. I try and do what makes sense.

For example, I don’t wear Versace glasses, but then that might have more to do with the fact that I don’t wear glasses.

William: That might have something to do with it. You’re not morally opposed to Versace eyewear?

Ryan: Not if it looks appropriate, but I do think that there is something not right about wearing Versace for the sake of wearing Versace. Why, do you wear Versace?

William: No! I wear Dolce & Gabbana. But I like their eyewear. It’s comfortable and well-designed.

Ryan: Who?

William: Er, moving on…

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William: How did you and JP come up with the design you submitted?

Ryan: JP came up with most of the additional “program” that we added to our design. JP has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, and he is a bit of a theology whiz. We decided to locate the image of the Trinity on the North side of the dome, with Mary on the South side. In our proposal we decided to give the dome a field of blue, as opposed to gold, since this is is a Marian Shrine, and also to represent it as a heavenly realm.

The biggest program that we added, though, was to the arch faces. The original program just said, “figures/portraits”. We decided to have the north arch contain Apostles (closest to God), the east arch contain Prophets (closest to the Creation Dome), the west arch contain Martyrs (closest to the Last Judgment), and the south arch contain the Church throughout the world (closest to/led by Mary.) Each arch face would be accompanied by text:
“The glorious company of apostles praise you”
“The noble fellowship of prophets praise you”
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you”
and “throughout the world the holy church acclaims you”

The text was taken from the “Te Deum”, which is part of the Liturgy of the Hours. We saw this central space as a representation of worship.

William: That is great. I pray part of the Liturgy of the Hours myself, so I know that one.

Ryan: So it has people down below (us), and God up above.

William: As it should be.

Ryan: The Creed is one of the central declarations that we make as Catholics, as part of our worship. Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs, Mary, and the Church, all aid us toward God. Additionally, between the windows of the dome are placed alternating Cherubim and Seraphim, to demarcate that it is representative of heaven. In our design right now we also have Michael and Gabriel on the east and west sides of the dome, with 4 figures representing the 4 cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

William: It’s a rather elaborate composition, too, you really took the basic framework they provided and ran with it.

Ryan: We aren’t perfect artists, so our drawings aren’t perfect, but I think our overall arrangement is about where we want it, although the figures in the dome still look a little spatially awkward.

William: Some reading this blog will not have previously been aware of the fact that you and JP designed the liturgical furniture for the Papal Mass, held at Nationals Stadium here in Washington, DC, when Pope Benedict visited us in April of 2008. How does the design process for the dome compare, in your mind, to what you had to go through in the Papal Mass competition?

Ryan: One thing that is similar is the concern for visibility. For the Papal Mass altar, most people would be seeing it from a distance, so we wanted to make sure the design was large enough and bold enough to be seen from a distance. This does NOT mean that the design had to simple, oversized, or dumbed-down, but rather that if we wanted something to be seen from a distance, we had to make sure that the designs were such that they could produce a shadow to outline the form, or of a thickness that could be seen from a distance.

For the Shrine Dome, viewing from a distance was also a concern. For example, if we made a figure 2 inches high, from the ground it will appear as a dot. In addition, we had to deal with the fact that the dome is a doubly-curved surface.

This was not as much of an issue for the Incarnation and Redemption domes, since they are chopped up by the arches and don’t really define a half-sphere. Designs drawn on a flat piece of paper only get distorted slightly when “mushed” onto those domes.

So for the Trinity Dome, the distortion from flat design to curved dome is much more severe, like trying to wrap a basketball for a Christmas present. Also, figures that appear on the lower sides of the dome will be seen at an angle from the floor, so the figures will appear distorted, shorter and fatter. To aid students in visualizing what their design proposals might look like, they were provided with a 3d model of the Shrine that would map their designs to see how they would look in 3d.

William: You know the irony is, with all of our computer-aided design, these were problems that Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque artists had to solve for themselves completely by hand, when designing the interior side of a dome.

Ryan: That is true. Often times they solved these problems by trial and error. Or by building actual models to visualize. I was looking up the Ravenna mosaic company (I don’t think it exists any more) based out of St. Louis, Missouri. They did a lot of mosaics for the St. Louis Cathedral. When they designed mosaics for the domes there, they would build miniature scale models of the domes and paint their designs directly onto the model. This is sort of a digital version of that.

William: That makes sense. By distorting the surface of the “canvas”, when you remove it from the mold, you see what you have to do to get those proportions right.

Ryan: Right.

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William: What happens next for you in the competition?

Ryan: We submitted our designs last Thursday, and by this Wednesday we have to submit a PowerPoint presentation of images along with an animated walk-though video. The final decisions will be made this Friday, and announced next Monday. I think they want the PowerPoint presentation and videos so they can show these around for various purposes. Another reason they wanted to do the competition was so they could have some rough designs that they can to help them fund raise. Most people aren’t as eager to donate to something that they can’t see.

William: That’s a smart move on their part. But of course it’s a lot of work for you kids. Where can people read more about this and the theology behind it?

Ryan: There is a competition website that has all of the materials that were provided to the students by the Shrine, located at http://architecture.cua.edu/news/DomeCompetition/index.cfm

William: Now, you’re a cradle Catholic, aren’t you?

Ryan: Pretty much. My father is Catholic, my mother is Catholic, my grandparents were Catholic, I went to Catholic elementary school, junior high, high school, and college. Though I did go to a Lutheran preschool.

William: You commented on how you appreciate honesty in use of materials, and also on how things should appear to be what they are, not deceptive. Is that at all informed by your Faith?

Ryan: Hmm, it might be. I’m still not sure if I hold that as a personal point of view (I prefer honesty of materials), or if it is more universal (everyone should be honest with materials). Obviously, being dishonest with materials is not a sin, but when our world becomes filled with falsehoods…I don’t know.

I will say that my faith does increasingly influence my points of view, or at least I cross-check whenever it applies. I don’t think the color you decide to paint your room has anything to do with your faith, but if you hire someone to repaint your room every 6 months because you like to have a different color to show off to your friends, then maybe you need to analyze your values.

William: This is rather a large – well, enormous – ecclesiastical project you’ve been working on. Do you have any church-related projects you’d like the chance to work on someday, big or small?

Ryan: Nothing specifically, although now that I’ve had a bit of a taste of church design, I do find myself looking closer at churches, and seeing how they perform during liturgies.

William: I suppose I have to ask: does form have to follow function?

Ryan: One could get into a lifetime debate over questions like that. I would say that buildings should, on the whole, be honest to their function: an airport should look like an airport, a parking garage should look like a parking garage, etc. Of course, what should a parking garage look like? And if an airport doesn’t look like an airport, does that automatically make it a bad building?

I guess the short answer to your question is, I have not settled on an answer to that yet, and I’m not necessarily sure that that is a bad thing. I think materials should be honest to themselves. Wood should look like wood (sorry vinyl siding), metal should look like metal, stone should look like stone, plastic should look like plastic, etc.

Of course, even I break with this rule, because my sister has a station wagon with plastic fake wood paneling, and I love the fact that it does, even though it is the epitome of fake, and I have no explanation for why I like it. On the whole though, I think one should be mindful of “fakeness” and not let it get carried away to the point where we live in a Disney-fied world where nothing is actually what it seems. Sort of reminds me of “the cave” in philosophy.

William: With architecture casting light into the gloom?

Ryan: Helping, at least. Good architecture won’t make mean people nice, or make crooks give back their loot, but good natural lighting is always more pleasant than light bulbs – just ask all of those people who vacation at beaches. I do not consider myself one of those architects who think that good architecture can somehow save mankind, and that all we have to do is find out what good architecture is. I do think though, that good, honest architecture can help make our lives better, but only if we try to make things better ourselves.







Design proposals for the Trinity Dome,
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception,
Washington, D.C.
by Ryan Mullen and John-Paul Mikolajczyk
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7 thoughts on “The Courtier Interview: Dome Design for the National Shrine in Washington, D.C.

  1. >Fascinating post. I visited the shrine in 1990 and was impressed by its beauty, then. The Christus over the high altar is amazing.Although many disagree with me, I’d love to see Westminster Cathedral finished. Alas, the chances of that are almost nil, as the Cathedral authorities are currently trying to keep the bricks in place, let alone cover them with marbles and mosaic.Ah well!

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  2. >You mean the “Angry Jesus”? He is a bit scary. Though it’s the Last Judgment, I suppose He will be rather scary…I went to Westminster Cathedral only once during the 2 1/2 years I lived in London (but since I attended Farm Street and Spanish Place, why would I go to Victoria?) I remember thinking that the dark, unfinished brick of the ceiling made it seem like a semi-abandoned train station from the days of the Raj.

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  3. Unfortunately, that new altar was simplistic cartoon of a design…trying to play classical but failing badly. It was neither modern nor traditional…mostly ignorantly designed and will be a scar on the church as long as it is there. Sadly, the same can be said for the proposed mosaic designs. Huge seas of blue background with tiny little figures standing there like mute mannequins. A complete failure of imagination.

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