St John's Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space by Victoria Young.
London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014
ISBN 978 0816676163,240pp, h/b, 26[pounds sterling]
At St John's Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota, the architect Marcel Breuer's spaces convey unification, both physically and spiritually. People are woven into the fabric of worship through means both geometrical Breuer's overall trapezoidal design and vast bell banner--and elemental, as with the decision to not have a communion rail. Deliberating over how to express unity most effectively, Father Godfrey Diekmann at St John's wrote to the liturgist Pere Gy: 'We have definitely planned to eliminate the communion rail. We figure that it has come to denote in people's minds not merely the distinction between sanctuary and nave, that is, between priest and people, but actually separation. And we feel that this is most undesirable, particularly because Communion itself is the sacrament of union, and for it to be distributed at a symbol of separation seems most inappropriate.' (1)
The Abbey of Saint John the Baptist is the largest Benedictine abbey in the world. Between May 1953 and August 1961, the brethren worked with the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer on a radical new architectural proclamation of modern theology and modern liturgy. Breuer designed some 12 buildings for the monastic community, ten of which were completed. The plan extended far beyond the decade it took to erect Breuer's designs. Indeed, the architect and patrons were working on a 100-year timescale reminiscent of the ambitions of ancient and modern cathedrals. When the project began, Time magazine reported, 'Abbot Baldwin and his black-cowled brothers are in no mad rush. "After all," he said last week, "what are a few generations to the Benedictines?"' (2)
Concrete itself was a key aspect of achieving St John's architectural articulation of wholeness and sacred coherence. Reflecting on concrete's capacity to make meaning, Breuer stated, 'At the present point in architectural history, when reinforced concrete flamboy ance seems fashionable, one might say that no other material has the potential for such a complete and convincing fusion between structure, enclosure, and surface; between architecture and detail; between the minute great form and the great small particle.' (3) In her book on St John's Abbey Church, Victoria Young builds on Breuer's claims about concrete, suggesting that 'concrete's plasticity could even be seen as a metaphor for the vision the Benedictines had for Saint John's as it highlighted an engineered aspect in architecture they deemed necessary to shape liturgical reform.' (p.33) The story of St John's is a story of vital and courageous exploration of Christianity, monasticism, and liturgy on a grand artistic scale.
Young is Professor of Modern Architectural History at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota. A prominent advocate for architectural history as a discipline and the unique importance of modern sacred spaces in academic and cultural discourse, Young is a key contributor to a steadily growing and deepening body of scholarship dedicated to interpreting religion and the arts in Europe and America. Her book on St John's benefits from high production values at the University of Minnesota Press and both the archival and new photography in the volume enhance an understanding of Breuer's project at all stages of development. Young's lucid writing style makes this book a page-turner, and its focus on a single site results in richly concentrated narratives that sustain interest throughout. Though the monograph is not biographical, the lives and character of the architect, artists and brethren are apparent in a manner that suggests Young's own evident enthusiasm and affection for the site, which invigorates her solid academic expertise.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the St John's project was the stained glass design for the north wall, consisting of 430 hexagons, nearly 180 feet wide. Breuer wanted his former Bauhaus classmate Josef Albers to design the glass. Though Albers did design the White Cross window in the Abbot's private chapel, the north wall commission went to the Polish artist Bronislaw Bak. Young notes that this decision remains controversial, and that Albers' windows 'glowing their brightest orange and yellow at high noon, provide an intriguing clue of what the northern window might have been.' (p.135) Bak was able to produce the window on site, and this led to another opportunity to live out the fullness of the Benedictine Rule through the innovative modern architecture. Bak's design used colour to represent the Incarnation and the liturgical year. As Young points out, Bak's invitation to the monks at St John's to help construct the windows responded to St Benedict's 'call for artisans of the community "to practice their craft with all humility" while "fending off idleness by daily manual labour"'. (4) Over the 18 months it took to produce the north wall's stained glass, Bak worked alongside six brothers: Adrian Cahill, Andrew Goltz, Richard Haeg, John Kruz, David Riegel, and Placid Stuckenschneider.
At the 40th anniversary of the dedication of St John's Abbey Church, Abbot John Klassen summarised the creative tension between stewardship for cultural heritage and the importance of growing and changing. He said, 'We pray that we may have the courage and wisdom to take this spiritual legacy and move forward into the future with boldness and confidence.' (6) As Young reveals, Breuer's collaborative modernist vision for St John's in Minnesota demonstrated how artists, architects, and religious communities could come together to produce spaces that were simultaneously rooted in tradition and taking risks in their distinctive and challenging expression of holiness.
(1.) Cited in Kathleen Hughes, The Monk's Tale: A Biography of Godfrey Diekmann, OSB (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), 174.
(2.) 'New Look for St. John's', Time, April 26, 1954, 87.
(3.) Marcel Breuer, 'Architectural Details', Architectural Record, February 1964, 121. Quoted in Young, St John's Abbey Church, 33.
(4.) The Rule of St Benedict, quoted in Young, St John's Abbey Church, 135
(5.) Abbot John Klassen, 'Homily for Fortieth Anniversary of the Dedication of the Abbey Church' http://www.saintjohnsabbey.ord/ abbot/011024.html, quoted in Young, St John's Abbey Church, 155./
Ayla Lepine is a Lecturer in Art History at the University of Essex and is completing a book on medievalism, the sacred, and 20th-century cities
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|Publication:||Art and Christianity|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2015|
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