A wonderful book for a wonderful church

Bookmark and Share

October 7, 2014

By Mike Killeen

There weren't a lot of architectural wonders for Victoria Young to study growing up in Comfrey, Minnesota.

A grain elevator was interesting to look at. The Post Office and the old City Hall had some nice touches, but nothing that would show up on the pages of Architecture Minnesota magazine.

But when the teen-aged Young visited Saint John's University and saw the Abbey and University Church for the first time, her eyes lit up.

"We had a very small school, and it didn't even have an art class. It (the church) was like, 'Wow, this is pretty incredible.' I always remembered it," Young said.

Young, professor and chair of the art history department at the University of St. Thomas, has authored a book on the church, "Saint John's Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space" (2014, University of Minnesota Press, 240 pages, $34.95). The book will be available in mid-October at bookstores and online sources.

"As an architectural historian, we sit here in the middle of the country, and people on the east and west coast - and I love them all - tend to think that we're in flyover land," Young said. "One of Breuer's students, I.M. Pei, has said if this group of buildings at Saint John's were on the east or west coast, it would have been even a bigger game-changer for Breuer, everyone would know about it and it would be this really powerful architectural place. People just don't know about it."

A building collaboration

Young's research has centered on 19th and 20th century architecture, with special interests in sacred space, contemporary museums (she's currently writing a book on the National World War II Museum in New Orleans by Voorsanger Architects) and the work of Frank Gehry. But she remains attracted to the Abbey Church, designed by the Hungarian-born Breuer.

"When you build a home, you can build something very personal that means something to you," Young said. "When you're doing any kind of sacred space, it's first of all a collective process, and that's one of the things about the Saint John's story specifically that was exciting to me - the way the Benedictines and Breuer worked together. The collaboration there is incredible.

"But it's also a sacred space, so architects and clients are searching for some kind of higher meaning with the building. In the Middle Ages, they would have called it a 'Heavenly Jerusalem.' But we're just looking for some kind of space that moves us and helps us think more about religion more powerfully when we're in it, and that's really hard to do. But I think that is what has always engaged me about it."

In 1953, 12 architects were invited to apply to develop a comprehensive building plan for Saint John's covering 100 years. Ten applied; that number was whittled down to five before Breuer was chosen.

Breuer fit with the Benedictines

Young initially felt the choice of Breuer, who hadn't designed a sacred space before the Abbey Church, to be a bold move on the part of the monks. But the more she researched it, the more she changed her opinion.

"They (the monks) were really bold in wanting somebody who was a big name, who could make a difference for them. They wanted to make a mark," Young said. "After I went through it, it wasn't so much that Breuer was a big name, because he wasn't the biggest name. He wasn't Frank Lloyd Wright, he wasn't Pietro Belluschi, Walter Gropius or Eero Saarinen. Those architects were really more well-known than he was.

"But Breuer was a guy that fit with them in personality. He was humble, he would listen to them, he was young and this just wasn't a church. This was a campus master plan that was going to go on for decades. (Breuer also designed nine other buildings at SJU, including Alcuin Library and Peter Engel Science Building.) So his youth made a difference, and he just had a way about really making them feel like they were part of the process the whole time. And that, to me, was his defining moment."

To be fair, it wasn't all smooth sailing. Young devotes a portion of her book to the struggle over the design of the northern (stained glass) wall, "the most complicated moment in the whole building campaign," she said. And, the red organ screen above the altar was originally set to have art work on it, but a design could never be decided on.

The concrete designer

Some have wondered about Breuer's fascination with concrete, but there's also a reason for that, Young said.

"There's this lovely woman, Isabelle Hyman, who wrote this masterful book on Breuer, 'Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings.' In it, she says that Breuer always wanted to be a sculptor. That's what he wanted to be. Saint John's has the only public sculpture by Breuer, on display in front of the Palaestra ('The Athlete')," Young said.

"Concrete gave him this ability to form and shape things ­- much like a sculptor would work with clay, he could work with concrete. So, he was a sculptor, and concrete really was his thing."

Young said the Abbey Church would not fit in an urban landscape.

"Breuer did do a smaller version of this sort of building in the city of Norton Shores (a suburb of Muskegon, Michigan), St. Francis de Sales Church. It works in a residential area with its smaller scale," she said.

"But this size building wouldn't work in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Manhattan or a residential area. I think the site in Collegeville always fascinated Breuer and he went big and bold and created a presence in the woodlands of Stearns County. He did the same thing for the Benedictine Sisters at Annunciation Monastery outside Bismarck, North Dakota. Those concrete buildings command the landscape, dominate it and create a visual marker for the faith and the Benedictine order."