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Saint John's Abbey Church

Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space

2014
Author:

Victoria M. Young

Saint John's Abbey Church

The making of an architectural masterpiece in Minnesota, a church that helped to define modern religious design

In the 1950s the brethren at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint John the Baptist in Collegeville, Minnesota decided to expand their campus, including building a new church. This book documents the dialogue of the design process, showcasing the importance of modernism in the design of sacred space and of architect Marcel Breuer’s role in setting the standard.

Victoria Young has written an engaging history of Marcel Breuer’s Saint John’s Abbey Church. Her insights into the dynamics of the design process and of the relationships among clients, architects, and contractors make Saint John’s Abbey Church valuable to anyone interested in how great architecture comes into being.

Thomas Fisher, University of Minnesota

In the 1950s the brethren at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint John the Baptist in Collegeville, Minnesota—the largest Benedictine abbey in the world—decided to expand their campus, including building a new church. From a who’s who of architectural stars—such as Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, Pietro Belluschi, Barry Byrne, and Eero Saarinen—the Benedictines chose a former member of the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer. In collaboration with the monks, this untested religious designer produced a work of modern sculptural concrete architecture that reenvisioned what a church could be and set a worldwide standard for midcentury religious design.

Saint John’s Abbey Church documents the dialogue of the design process, as Breuer instructed the monks about architecture and they in turn guided him and his associates in the construction of a sacred space in the crucial years of liturgical reform. A reading of letters, drawings, and other archival materials shows how these conversations gave shape to design elements from the church’s floor plan to the liturgical furnishings, art, and incomparable stained glass installed within it. The book offers a rare detailed view of how a patron and architect work together in a successful building campaign—one that, in this case, lasted for two decades and resulted in designs for twelve buildings, ten of which were completed.

The post–World War II years were critical in the development of religious and architectural experiences in the United States—experiences that came together in the construction of Saint John’s Abbey and University Church and that find their full expression in Victoria M. Young’s account of the process. Using the liturgy of the mid-twentieth century as a cornerstone for understanding the architecture produced to support it, her book showcases the importance of modernism in the design of sacred space and of Marcel Breuer’s role in setting the standard.

Saint John's Abbey Church

Victoria M. Young is professor of modern architectural history and chair of the art history department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her work is featured in Casabella and Saint John’s at 150: A Portrait of This Place Called Collegeville, and she is curator of the exhibition permanently installed in Frank Gehry’s Winton Guest House at St. Thomas’s campus in Owatonna, Minnesota.

Saint John's Abbey Church

Victoria Young has written an engaging history of Marcel Breuer’s Saint John’s Abbey Church. Her insights into the dynamics of the design process and of the relationships among clients, architects, and contractors make Saint John’s Abbey Church valuable to anyone interested in how great architecture comes into being.

Thomas Fisher, University of Minnesota

Victoria Young artfully reminds us how, over fifty years after its creation, the architectural masterpiece, Saint John’s Abbey and University Church, still helps define modern religious design. Unfettered by the limitations of the past, Marcel Breuer captured the forward thinking spirit of the 1500 year-old Benedictine in order to create a worship space that magnificently reflects liturgically reformed Catholic architecture. Dr. Young tells the story of this historic collaboration with exacting precision, detail, and humanity.

Saint John’s University President Michael Hemesath

Saint John’s Abbey Church examines the relationship between architecture and theology/liturgy in a detailed way, and contextualizes architectural materials and relationships between the groups involved in the building program as a stimulating and engaging story.

Paul Eli Ivey, University of Arizona

Young explores in compelling details, photos and drawings what a massive, innovative undertaking the campus building projects were, with most attention focused on the building project’s glorious centerpiece—the abbey church.

Newsleaders

Cogent and compelling. The story of the creation of St. John’s Abbey Church is as captivating and instructive today as it was a half-century ago.

Architecture MN

Saint John's Abbey Church

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

1. Bricks and Brothers: Establishing the Benedictines in Collegeville
2. The Twelve Apostles: Selecting the Architect
3. Building the Spiritual Axis: Breuer and the Benedictines Design a Modern Catholic Church
4. A Ministry of Art: The Decorative Program of the Abbey Church

Conclusion: A Modern Liturgical Design for the Ages

Notes
Bibliography
Illustration Credits
Index