Saint John's Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space

Victoria M. Young, Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space

(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 216 pages, index, bibliography. 17 illustrations 17 in color and numerous photographs, architectural drawings and sketches in black and white.

Marcel Breuer is best known as the architect of many postwar residences and such public, corporate and institutional buildings as HUD in Washington DC, UNESCO in Paris and several office buildings for companies like IBM. Lesser known but equally significant are his designs for buildings for religious organizations like Saint John’s Abbey and Church for the Benedictine order in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The recent book by Victoria Young explains in great narrative detail and illustrated with many photographs and sketches how the project came about. Beginning with the history of the order and its establishment in Minnesota, she takes us through the selection of the architect, which, even for an architect today, remains intriguing. The order invited twelve architects, five from abroad including such prominent church designers as Rudolf Schwarz, and seven from the US. Of the seven Pietro Belluschi and Eero Saarinen declined because of other responsibilities and work in hand leaving Richard Neutra, Walter Gropius, Barry Byrne, Joseph D. Murphy and Marcel Breuer. After site visits and interviews Marcel Breuer was selected.

The design process and its stages are also described in great detail highlighting the underlying liturgical concepts and resulting evolution of the design. It reflected the spirit of the liturgical renewal taking place after the war, which culminated, some years after the abbey church is finished, in the changes spurred by Vatican II. In addition liturgical art is an integral part of the design and is incorporated in the finished building.

Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space by Victoria Young is an important and welcomed contribution to the literature about the oeuvre of Marcel Breuer and particularly his religious projects. It also gives an insight in the discussions about meaning, art and liturgy taking place mid-century that influenced the design of so many of the other churches across America regardless of denomination.   

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