Marcel Breuer’s St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN

I couldn’t help but feel like I was traveling ‘north of the wall’, when we drove out past St. Cloud, Minnesota in search of Collegeville, home to the College of Saint Benedict Saint John’s University. Maybe I was just too aware of how remote it appeared on the map/GPS, maybe it had to do with me dozing off on the way, whatever the case, it felt as if we ‘happened upon’ a relatively unknown marvel.

The church has a borderline ludicrous looking ‘hat thing’ that stands tall and proud in front of the church, depicting the cross, acting both as a campus landmark and as a symbol. Immediately upon entering through the narthex and into the nave it became apparent the place was exceptionally designed with the Catholic Church in mind, utilizing all the expertise of finely honed craft, technology and visuals art that was so paramount to the Bauhaus (which he attended first for study then as a teacher). The Church was completed in 1961.

From what I gathered from their website, the artist Joseph Alber designed the hexagonal facade, with the following color/light study:

The massive concrete nave felt like it must have evolved from a paper study (I keep noticing things that feel like models…), and the way light (generally artificially produced inside) wrapped the massive concrete was surprisingly warm and peaceful, as well as acoustically powerful. The way the hymns and prayers were spoke/chanted felt like the words were undulating like powerful waves, rising and falling, washing over the congregation. The effect was really cool, and again, comforting.

The balcony appears as an open book, held up by these beautiful hollowed out ‘talons’. If the architect would have just overbuilt them, filling them with concrete, light would have been lost, and it would have appeared far more brutal, in keeping the voids he using just what is necessary, attracting looks from visitors as well as holding the architect’s and structural engineer’s attention.


The whole stairs-to-balcony section of the building was one of my favorite places to walk through, the folds of the nave expand and compress with respect to the accordion stairs, and angular handrail. This picture can’t do it justice, the atmosphere of the nave takes on its own sublimity; when it goes in and out of view, you really feel it there, looming.

As you exit, you see daylight penetrating through the small glass insert, between the massive wooden doors. The effect is great, with the help of the skylights, it illuminates the narthex (acclimation area) just enough that your body adjusts to the light of the sanctuary. It also visually says ‘our doors are always open’, which was nice to see, especially in a church that large and symbolic.


Thanks for reading,

-matthew

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