by Dennis Dalman
Flash back to 60 years ago: “A church constructed of reinforced concrete? You gotta be kidding.”
At first, that idea was preposterous and even shocking to many people who had come to know churches as medieval-looking structures designed in brick, carved stone, lots of old-time fancy filigree and pointy steeples visible for miles around.
In central Minnesota, Catholic churches especially were constructed using models from the “old country” – mainly those in Germany. The two major architectural styles, created centuries ago, were Romanesque and Gothic – magnificent structures that, in some cases, took more than 100 years to build and that still have the power to invoke jaw-dropping awe in tourists who visit Europe.
Reinforced concrete just did not fit into that old, tried-and-true sacred tradition, even though the large dome of one of the world’s greatest buildings, the Pantheon, was made of concrete in ancient Rome.
More than 60 years ago, internationally renowned architect Marcel Breuer was commissioned to design a new church and other buildings on the St. John’s University campus. It was an ambitious, intricate labor of love involving Breuer and his close collaboration with the clergy leaders and monks who were visionary in their embracing of architectural modernity to create a sacred space.
That is the story told by Victoria M. Young in her new book, Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space. (See related story.) Young’s book is a kind of architectural adventure story which predates another astonishing adventure many years later at St. John’s – the creation of the hand-written Saint John’s Bible. Both projects stunned the sacred and secular worlds because of their bold, daring, visionary approaches to renewals of faith.
In early 1950, the old church on the St. John’s campus, built in 1879, proved to be inadequate because it could not accommodate a growing population among the monastery, the seminary, the university and the preparatory school.
A new church was needed, and Abbot Baldwin Dworschak, OSB, took charge, determined the new church would be built in a modern style that would look forward to another century of faith in the modern world.
One influence on the concept for a modernistic design was an encyclical released by Pope Pius XII. Part of the encyclical emphasized the need to forge a oneness between Catholic clergy and participants in worship other than the centuries-old hierarchical structure with clergy above and worshippers below.
The encyclical, translated as “On the Sacred Liturgy,” opened the doors to modernism and gave architects the rationale and freedom to design churches to express that non-hierarchical oneness.
In his specifications for a new church, Abbot Dworschak said it should be “an architectural monument to the service of God. The Benedictine tradition at is best challenges us to think boldly and to cast our ideas in forms which will be valid for centuries to come.”
In the beginning
Dworschack contacted a dozen eminent world-class architects and requested them to submit blueprints for a church. After many agonizing but exciting meetings, the monastic leaders selected Marcel Breuer to do the job. Breuer, born in 1902 in Germany, was trained and taught at Bauhaus, an architectural school in Germany that was hugely influential throughout the world for its strikingly modern designs in architecture, artwork and even furniture. Later, Breuer moved to the United States where he joined great architect Walter Gropius at Harvard University, where both men taught. At that time, Breuer designed mainly homes, but by the late 1940s, he’d begun to create institutional buildings. His 1952 UNESCO headquarters building in Paris was – and still is – considered an architectural marvel.
By 1954, Breuer and the monks agreed to architectural plans for an addition to the monastic quarters on campus, with the church construction to follow. The building project began May 19, 1958 and was completed Aug. 24, 1961. It involved the use mostly of local workers, especially for the cast-concrete forms that comprise the church’s skeletal structure. It was such an innovative way of building a church that some skeptics said it couldn’t be done, that it wouldn’t work, that it might end up in a crumbled heap.
But the workers had faith, much like the builders of the great cathedrals in the Medieval Era in Europe. Such builders, sculptors and stonemasons worked lovingly on those churches, even though most workers did not live long enough to see the crowning achievement of the finished buildings. The church construction of centuries ago, in some cases, involved three and four generations of workers.
The church triumphant
When the St. John’s Abbey Church was completed, people from throughout the area far and wide came to marvel at it, never having seen anything remotely resembling such a modern church.
Some raved about the style; some did not like it; others weren’t sure if they liked it or not. But after the shock of the new receded a bit, more and more people came to admire the structure for its bold, innovative beauty. It had become an object of worldwide fame and admiration. It also set a universal standard for modern, pragmatic church architecture in which form and function were blissfully wedded.
The St. John’s Abbey Church design was a perfect blend of the functional with the aesthetic and spiritual. For example, the interior was built so all participants in the Catholic Mass would be equal participants in worship, with all sitting as closely as possible to the altar. The trapezoidal space is vast and open, with no pillars, statuary or other structures to block sight lines.
The exterior of the church is also a marvel of modernity and technology with its dazzling use of cast, steel-reinforced concrete. Visitors to the church walk toward and then under a massive but soaringly graceful bell banner, 112 feet high. On its narrow “legs” the parabolic-shaped structure seems almost as if it is about to ascend skyward from its mooring – thin arched “legs.” The stunning structure is both solid and heavy, yet lyrical and graceful. Within the banner are five bells that ring for worship. Above the bells is an open space in which hangs a large cross.
Beyond the bell banner is the north-side entrance of the church with its vast wall of rows of hexagonal stained-glass windows, like a giant honeycomb filled with shimmering colors of stylized, abstract cut-glass pieces.
In her book, 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.
Young also provides a detailed background of what led to modernism in church design, including the visionary artists of the early part of the 20th Century, such as Picasso, Matisse, Georges Rouault and Georges Braque. Many artists, Matisse especially, did many liturgical works of art, including the strikingly modernistic, spare, minimal design for a chapel in Vence, a city in southern France.
Young ends her book with a tribute to the innovative pioneers – monks, architects and workers – who created St. Johns Abbey Church:
“The power of this place, its church and the people who built it will endure for generations. The liturgical concerns evaluated and presented in the church’s design facilitated an emphasis on unity that became the cornerstone of religious architecture after the Second Vatican Council, when modern building methods and materials were added to the traditional lexicon of church design. The Benedictines used Breuer’s creative, engineered concrete forms to uphold the prestige and forward-thinking architectural nature of their order, just as their Gothic counterparts had done centuries before. But the work of Breuer and his associates went beyond just a reaffirmation of monasticism: it was also the cornerstone of a liturgically reformed American and international Catholic architecture.”
This is the front cover of Victoria M. Young’s just-published book about the architectural projects on the St. John’s University campus more than 50 years ago.
photo by archdaily.com
World-renowned architect Marcel Breuer stands in front of his masterpiece, the St. John’s Abbey Church shortly after its completion in 1961.
photo from St. John’s Abbey website
This is a partial view of the enormous stained-glass window wall of St. John’s Abbey Church. The window was designed by Bronislaw Bak, a St. John’s University faculty member.
photo by archdaily.com
The soaring bell banner rises majestically in front of St. John’s Abbey Church.