Archive | December, 2011

Modern Church Architecture Minnesota-Style

27 Dec

North facade of St. John's Abbey. Photo by John Cramer

I recently got the chance to visit the Twin Cities again and made the hour-and-a-half trek to the rural community of Collegeville, MN.  From Interstate 94, visitors can see the hilltop that has been home for the last one-hundred-and-fifty years to St. John’s Abbey, founded by Pennsylvania monks in 1856.  The monks at St. John’s live according to rules laid out in the sixth century by the Italian abbot Benedict of Nursia who advocated for his brothers lives of prayer, autonomy, and most important of all isolation.  In the early 1950s, however, a new abbot at St. John’s looked outside of the small community for an architect to build a new abbey church for his brothers.  Among twelve competitors, they selected the Hungarian-American Modernist architect Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), best known as the designer of New York’s Whitney Museum (1966).  Breuer was also an influential furniture designer and a progressive architecture and design instructor first at the German Bauhaus and then at Harvard University.

The sanctuary of St. John's Abbey. Photo by John Cramer

When designing for the Benedictine brothers, Breuer called upon his own fast-held tenets of modern building but also reflected on the the qualities of mystery and power that have inspired Catholic architecture and liturgy for two-thousand years.  The resulting Abbey church, completed in 1961, is a space that both looks back at the history of Benedictine architecture and attempts to translate that history for new generations of monks and laypeople.   Each piece of the church is an artist’s interpretation of ancient architectural and church elements.  They’re all there:  the skylit entry like the atrium of an ancient Roman house; the center aisle leading up to a high altar beneath a modified baldacchino; a holy water font reduced to its barest essentials;  a secluded Lady Chapel with medieval Madonna and Child sculpture and  gilded ceiling;  traditional confessional booths, organ screen, and stained glass windows.

The concrete campanile at St. John's Abbey. Photo by John Cramer

The creative license Breuer takes with these traditional elements, however, is breathtaking.  The campanile outside, the tallest part of the structure whose bells call the brothers to daily prayer, is a thin panel of concrete that resembles more a billboard than the spires of Chartres but remains just as powerful a symbol.  Inside, the hexagonal units of stained glass that wraps the entry wall gives congregants the feel of being inside a warm honeycomb.  The rough poured-in-place concrete — what the Swiss architect Le Corbusier called beton brut — stacks up like strata producing a space that sometimes feels not built by men but carved out of subterranean rock.  The abbey church is not so much a complete reconception of church architecture that you might expect from a hardline modernist like Marcel Breuer.  He isn’t creating a new kind of worship experience from wholecloth.  If anything, I get the feeling inside that Breuer is trying to take Catholics back to Christianity’s roots through experiential references:  the candlelit liturgy in the closed room or cave, simple forms, simple lines.

Stained glass at St. John's Abbey. Photo by John Cramer

Breuer’s work at St. John’s Abbey reminds me of a lot of late twentieth-century churches we see around us all the time — probably no wonder considering Breuer’s influence on American university architecture curriculums and on modern architecture in general.  Breuer’s work in Collegeville is really astounding, not just for its rethinking of traditional church architecture, but because it predated by ten years reforms in the Catholic church that would later make non-traditional church architecture commonplace.

In an earlier post on New Orleans’ Lake Vista, I talked about James Lamantia’s 1966 copper-draped St. Pius X Catholic Church whose style and layout, also very much a radical departure from traditional Catholic church architecture, was in part inspired by the proclamations of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, better known as  “Vatican II.”  Convened by the reformist Pope John XXII and wrapped up by his successor Pope Paul VI, Vatican II was a three-year long deliberation on the Catholic Church’s role in a post-WWII world transforming in the face of extreme social and political upheaval.  Vatican II resulted in some of the biggest changes to Church doctrine and protocol seen since its response to the Protestant crisis of the sixteenth century.

Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Photo from Wikipedia

The colloquial name of the Council —  “Vatican II” — sounds more like the title of an action movie sequel than a serious religious deliberation.  But really as much as the Council was a prayerful deliberation on faith and mission, it also turned out to be a real blockbuster marketing event for the Church.  Vatican II directly redeliberated Catholic tradition in part by embracing a more stripped down liturgy and by incorporating more lay congregants and their own traditions into local worship.

For two thousand years, the Catholic Church has always been a major patron of large scale building projects and so the post-war alterations to Vatican thought in turn helped reframe the Church artistically as well as a spiritually and made an impact on how Catholics around the world thought of their physical spaces for worship.  The freedom enshrined in new Vatican doctrine found built expression in radical new church designs that focused on contemporary design ideas and the softening of liturgical strictures.

Cathedral of Brasilia. Photo source: Wikipedia

Church architects around the world moved away from the linear “basilica” plan and instead explored circular church plans that placed congregants “in-the-round.”  My favorite examples of these are of course James Lamantia’s St. Pius X (1966) in Lake Vista but also the more famous Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool (designed by Frederick Gibberd and completed in 1967) and the Cathedral of Brasilia (designed by Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1970).  For a while there, some of contemporary architecture’s most daring and innovative work was, funny enough, coming from the Catholic Church.


Arthur Q. Davis: New Orleans, Meet Mid-Century Modernism

1 Dec

New Orleans Rivergate Convention Center (now demolished). Photograph by Frank Lotz Miller. Source: Southeastern Architectural Archive.

The Times Picayune reported today that Arthur Q. Davis, a giant in Southern modern architecture, died this week in New Orleans at the age of ninety-one.  Davis was one-half of the successful New Orleans-based architecture firm of  Curtis & Davis, an office he opened in 1946 with his Tulane School of Architecture classmate Nathaniel “Buster” Curtis (1917-1997).  Curtis & Davis were lauded in their day for their large-scale New Orleans commissions, which included the Superdome (completed in 1975) and the Saarinen-inspired Rivergate Convention Center (completed in 1968, now demolished).  They were also internationally-recognized and sought-after architects of bold mid-century government structures including the American Embassy in Saigon (1966), the Steglitz Medical Center in West Berlin (completed in 1968), and the James F. Forrestal Federal Building in Washington, D.C. (completed in 1969), just across Independence Avenue from James Renwick’s Smithsonian “Castle.”

The New Orleans Public Library just after its completion. Photograph by Frank Lotz Miller. Source: Southeastern Architectural Archive.

For all their huge commissions, it’s their smaller structures that really sing to me.  My old boss, architectural historian Dr. Karen Kingsley, first introduced me to C&D’s more accessible work around New Orleans (Karen is now editor of the Society of Architectural HistoriansBuildings of the United States series and is author of the awesome volume on Louisiana architecture).  There are so many great C&D buildings around New Orleans but the best really has got to be the New Orleans Public Library (1956-1958), part of a mid-1950s Civic Center development that moved the city’s local government offices out of the Greek Revival style Gallier Hall on Lafayette Square into a new series of tall Latin-American Modern-inspired office blocks.  C&D’s three-story library, a glass and steel box wrapped in a tight aluminum mesh, is a little rough around the edges today but is still the beautiful jewel box C&D intended it to be.  Another of their great New Orleans structures, the Thomy Lafon School (1954) was torn down earlier this year ( I discussed the school here almost a year ago).

Curtis and Davis’s creative partnership ended in 1978 but they both continued to do great work into the 1980s and 90s. Davis notably designed the aqua-colored New Orleans Arena (completed in1999), not my favorite building granted but the money and interest brought in by the Arena and its silver shiny C&D-designed neighbor, the Superdome, are today credited with helping in the city’s remarkable post-Katrina comeback.

Interior of the New Orleans Public Library. Photograph by Frank Lotz Miller. Source: Southeastern Architectural Archive.

For three decades,  Arthur Davis and Nathaniel Curtis helped shape what “modern architecture” meant along the Gulf Coast.  They championed modern building design in a city that was and is still fiercely attached (with very good reason) to the architecture of its past.  I’ve never thought, though, that Curtis and Davis turned their backs on New Orleans’ traditional Creole architecture. Instead I believe they expanded on the excitable spirit of their hometown and helped New Orleans see itself as it was in the mid-twentieth-century: a cosmopolitan capital of immense economic and political power, a center of the century’s booming oil industry, and a international port city perhaps more vital to world commerce than it had been in the nineteenth century.

Arthur Q. Davis' Guest House at his home in New Orleans. Photograph by Frank Lotz Miller. Source: Southeastern Architectural Archive.

New Orleans became a mature American city in the twentieth century, whether it was ready for it or not.  Arthur Davis helped craft what that maturity looked like and brought new layers and new ideas to the city’s already-vivid architectural landscape.