A Town Without Pity

Back in the late 1980’s, Tom Monaghan (The Virgin Mary Is in the Details) explored the idea of building a high end residential community near Ann Arbor, utilizing the designs of 30 leading architects from around the world to draw attention and capital. (The “30” referred to 30 minute pizza deliveries, demonstrating the consistently simplistic symbolism of his architectural gestures). It seemed for a brief moment that he might allow his obsession with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright to mature into a genuine understanding for, and appreciation of, fine architecture.

The choices reflected in this Florida town suggest, sadly, that such maturation did not occur, and the result appears to be one of the most spiritually pathetic churches proposed since the 1970’s, physically isolated from its community and wrapped in a campus more corporate than civic. Sadly, this is a time when many firms large and small are struggling with the deeper issues his project pretends to address; Moneo’s timeless Our Lady of Angels in Los Angeles fits the needs of a dynamic and diverse community of faith, and architects throughout the nation and the world are developing ethical practices that are environmentally responsive.

Where genuine faith would demand nuanced response, Monaghan offers only a simulacra of a city, with his own personal fears related to his time in an orphanage at its heart. Basing the city on a true sense of faith would mean so much more! Reducing building envelopes and material waste, designing smaller structures and allowing for a density that encourages one to walk, reflecting ethnic diversity in differing expectations of smaller public spaces, and varying levels of affordability are only a few issues that any person of faith should be called to embrace today. It is far too easy to laugh at the superficiality of this “city” and far too sad that this is all we in the architectural community can do.

Dana Buntrock
Associate Professor
Department of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley


This plan seems a little simplistically weird. Will there be that many fundamentalist type Catholics who want to live all together in such a town? It’ll be interesting to follow how it all shakes out after a decade or so.

DC Architect


This looks interesting but it is known that Naples and the surrounding areas are made up of very wealthy people. What will be the average cost of homes surrounding the university? Will there be room for the average American or those of varying classes? How will the Naples population feel about transplants of varying financial classes?



Its fascinating how while discussing all the obvious and subtle expressions of religion in the architecture, the design of Ave Maria also expresses the centrality of monotheistic religions.

In one of the expensive wealthy areas of Bombay, India there is an old anachronistic water tank, approximately 400 years old, historically considered much older than the city itself. One ancient myth surrounding it is that one of the major gods of the Hindu pantheon, Ram, shot an arrow there to find water, and the tank is the resulting source. But the wonderful expression of a polytheistic religion surrounding the tank on all sides are about 350 tiny temples, family deities, some well known and some obscure. The tank is then transmuted into a place of common ground that actually celebrates the diversity of belief.

Agnishikha Choudhuri


Your critique is too kind for this totally uninspired master plan.

George Busby
Consulting Architect + Towne Planner
Salisbury, NC


Thomas Monaghan has spent millions in an attempt to influence the political process in this country to favor his views, some of which are offensive and perhaps dangerous to those who do not share his beliefs. People absolutely have the right to worship as they please, but why should the wish of a very wealthy man to artificially create a town based on his religious principles be above of criticism?

Yes, we do live in a secular state that allows for freedom of religion. No, federal and state governments are not necessarily obliged to provide infrastructure and services to a town that advertises itself as proudly renouncing key elements of the Constitution. The respondents claiming victim status based on their faith must be unaware of the criticism this project has received from other Catholics, like Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice who feels that, “from a human and a Catholic perspective, I don’t think it is a good idea for human beings to isolate themselves from diversity and differences.” The plan for the massive church in Ave Maria has also faced criticism from Catholic architecture critics like Michael Rose (http://www.cruxnews.com) who wrote: “But rather than creating a pièce de résistance that would symbolize the promising aspirations of the newest Catholic university in the country, the architects have given birth to what could, instead, become an embarrassing eyesore.”

The defensiveness on the part of those who are “for” this project are disturbingly reminiscent of those who see all criticism of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories as anti-Semitic. States or municipalities that base themselves on religious beliefs blur the line between political and religious ideology, frequently leveraging the power of one to service the agenda of the other.

Peter Scott

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