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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.