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 re-envisioned what a church could be and set a worldwide standard for midcentury religious design.
Dr. Young documents in her presentation 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 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. Using the liturgy of the mid-twentieth century as a cornerstone for understanding the architecture produced to support it, Young’s new book, Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space, showcases the importance of modernism in the design of sacred space and of Marcel Breuer’s role in setting the standard.
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, part of UST’s art holdings. She serves on the State Review Board for Minnesota as well as the Governor’s Residence Council, and is a former president of the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. She currently is the national Society of Architectural Historian’s Chapters liaison.
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