St. John's Abbey Church
A Modern, Lasting Expression of Concrete Faith and Form

James Vlcek

Inspired by one of his side tables and named after his mother, the Cesca was Breuer's first cantilevered chair and was introduced in 1929.
Marcel Breuer, known to his close friends and associates as "Lajko," was born in Hungary in 1902, studied under Walter Gropius at the German Bauhaus in Weinmar and later taught at the Bauhaus in Dessau. His earliest projects were two legendary chair designs and residential work created in Germany. In 1937, he was invited by Gropius to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he taught for nine years. In 1946, he moved to New York City and opened an office on Eighty-eighth Street. Breuer established a successful architectural and design firm, "MBA," standing for Marcel Breuer & Associates. After retiring in 1976, MBA continued business until Breuer's associates disbanded and went their separate ways following his death in 1981. Known by many architects as the epitome of "modern" designers, Breuer's name lives on. He is remembered as one of the most influential figures of his time.

For over 1,500 years, the Benedictine Monks have emphasized worship, work and education; living a simple, yet endearing way of life, and holding a set of values that continues as an important part of modern society. With this tradition and focus, it seems appropriate that, over 120 years ago, a small Benedictine community settled in central Minnesota and built the first set of buildings, which was to become the modern day Saint John's Abbey and University.

Known for their deep spiritual tradition, moral dimension, as well as their gentle, creative and imaginative manner, the Benedictines have always stimulated and encouraged the creativity of their followers and students. This philosophy of education is strongly represented in their academic curriculum. Over the centuries, the Benedictines have encouraged monks and students alike to exercise a cross-disciplined, simple way of life, to open their minds, to excel, and to accomplish great things. The Benedictines have also studied and practiced that which is pleasing to the eye. The construction of the beautiful set of original buildings certainly follows the lasting tradition of their art, in every sense and medium pleasing to God and man.

St. John's first displayed its unique character in 1879-1882, when the original campus was constructed of native red clay bricks and mortar; then 79 years later, this time under Marcel Breuer's influence, constructed of architectural cast-in-place concrete.

The Growth Years
In the early 1950's, Saint John's University was growing rapidly with an influx of post World War II veterans. Most of the existing buildings, which were built in the late 1800's and early 1900's, were then in need of renovation, repair and remodeling. As plans and projections were proposed, Marcel Breuer was selected to lead the project. By the mid 50's, there had been sufficient fund-raising to allow Breuer's firm to begin drawings for the new church.

Breuer's Influence at St. John's Begins
Abbot John Classen recently reflected on Breuer's impact at St. John's, "For forty years, the bells of the Saint John's Abbey and University Church have called monks, students, faculty, staff and visitors to gather in song and prayer to praise the Lord. The Abbey Church, designed by architect Marcel Breuer, is one of ten such buildings on the Saint John's campus. Marcel Breuer's insight into the monastic and academic communities led to the creation of buildings that continue to offer us extraordinary places in which to live, worship and pursue scholarship excellence. The identity of this unique place is profoundly and incredibly shaped by Breuer's architectural genius."

Breuer's unmistakable design influence was often met with skeptics who thought his designs were impractical and would not stand the test of time. As bright and as much of a maverick as Breuer was in his own time, he was also careful to never go into a project without the help of structural engineering consultants, frequently—Matt Levy and Paul Weidlinger. He knew that if he was to achieve his unique designs, he would have to be practical and functional. Breauer knew from the onset that the Abbey Church would be no easy project.

The Beauty and Grace of Concrete

The soaring bell banner standing before the entrance of the church is a keynote for the building. While the new church is strikingly modern, it was planned according to the oldest principles of church architecture. But it would take more than Breuer's brilliance bring his dream to fruition. Choosing the right contractor, utilizing the tools of modern construction technology was equally important. Breuer's dramatic design demonstrates in a forceful manner that the ideas of a contemporary architect and the work of skilled craftsmen have a sacred place in creating spaces which inspire us all in the worship of God.

A Visual Expression of the St. John's Family
After submission of the original working drawings, The Atlas Cement Company, who would ultimately win the contract for all the concrete, convinced Breuer to allow Atlas to build a miniature model of the Abbey church for its own institutional advertising. It was then that they discovered that the beautifully curved legs of the bell tower didn't look as wonderful in three dimensions as they had in the two-dimensional front and side elevations. With this revelation, Breuer and his associates were called back to redefine the coordinates to the final curve that he had originally designed for the sidewalls of the church.

The Atlas advertising campaign attracted the interest of a brilliant engineer named Ted Hoffmeyer who, at the time, lived in Minneapolis. Hoffmeyer was getting burned-out from a tiresome commute back and forth from Los Angeles, flying his own airplane. For him, the Saint John's project came at just the right time. He was so inspired by the challenge of building the church that he convinced Pete McGough of McGough Construction to begin negotiations with the abbey, and to then hire him as field superintendent. Due to his reputation in the intricate, free-form aspect of the concrete forming, Hoffmeyer was picked as the man for the job.

The Right People Fall Into Place
Slowly, Breuer's architectural dream proceeded towards reality. The abbey church was an enormous challenge; using much of Breuer's creative energy and most of his firm's resources of design. In addition to the main structural shell, they had to design thirty different altars for the monks' worship, a baptismal font, seating and confessionals—all during a time of major changes in the Catholic liturgy. Breuer's MBA "dream team" became very involved in the Saint John's project.

Evolution of Breuer's Collegeville Influence Shown in Nine Other Buildings at St. John's
Take a casual twenty-minute walk on the "Collegeville' Minnesota campus and you'll see the evolution of design which Breuer bought to this sacred ground. Far from his roots in Hungary and France, he found a place here with its rolling hills and native grasses to be similar to those found in his homeland. This serene, central Minnesota setting would prove to be an ideal setting for his work. Breuer loved the outdoors and this peaceful place would inspire him to produce nine other, noticeably different, yet similar, buildings over a period of 20 years at St. John's.

Besides the Abbey church, Breuer also designed the "Abbot's Chapel," the "Chapter House," "St. John's University Library," "The Monastic Wing," and two campus dormitories. The contrast between the old and new is reflected mainly by his use of free-formed, architectural concrete as an art form. St. John's original 120 year-old Romanesque red brick church (recently renovated and now known as "The Great Hall") stands in sharp contrast to Breuer's modernist concrete statements.

The two buildings speak to the harmony that exists here between ecclesiastical tradition and modern architectural design theory.

Concrete as an Art Form
To some contractors, this forming job would be nearly impossible. The free-form nature and pour-as-you-go concrete construction challenged the work crews to the max. Because of the free-form, curved nature of the forming, most of the wood forms throughout the entire building were a "one use only" setup, made predominantly from 2X6 and 2X8 structural, dimension lumber. Breuer had originally designed the folded interior concrete walls to be painted in white and for the undulating concrete roof structure to be gilded. Breuer found that, when stripped, the exposed concrete was pleasantly textured and pleased the eye, so he left it as is—unpainted. This appearance would later go on to characterize Breuer's style with most of his concrete, free-formed architecture.

He Had a Plan. He Worked His Plan.
Being a rebel by nature and a true artist in every sense of the word, Breuer was sometimes criticized by some architectural "purists" as being more artist than architect. Most of Breuer's sketches were done quickly...spontaneously...much like an artist would thumbnail a fleeting idea on paper. He would frequently refine these sketches later, to the point sometimes of even consulting with a structural engineer to see if the design would even hold up under its own weight. Many times he would fold or curve a piece of paper into a design he liked...and later test to see if it would work. (It usually did.)

Many critics didn't know, however, that early on Breuer had a acquired a solid grasp for the structural side, and had numerous patents to prove his designs could "hold weight!" He imagined and designed the "Cesca" and "Isokon" chair designs which most of us have seen as staple seating in offices and modern furniture stores for over 50 years.

See One of the World's Most Famous Concrete Art Forms —St. John's Abbey Church

St. John's dramatic bell banner stands in sharp contrast to the 120 year old Romanesque red-brick Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota.
St. John's Abbey Church, dedicated in 1961, contains much of Breuer's simple, structural principles...that design and strength can be one and that modern, contemporary designs can be highly functional, simple and pleasing to the eye.

As anyone who has seen his work at Saint John's can attest, Breuer truly outdid himself here! Every design has a purpose! Every design leads to another! Every design is simple to the eye...but extremely complex in its ability to transfer support adjoining areas of the building. He has elevated concrete to an art medium and with it, has added a sense of permanence and tremendous strength into his building designs. His finished buildings have all stood the test of time and the elements. You'll see uncovered, unpainted, architectural concrete at St. John's in all of its grandeur. You'll see concrete as you've never seen concrete before!

Would you like to visit this architectural concrete masterpiece?
St. John University and Abbey Church is located 90-miles northwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul airport on I-94, approximately 10-miles northwest of St. Cloud, Minnesota. For more information regarding a tour of St. John's and lodging information, please call (320) 363-2011 or visit for an in-depth look at Breauer's work at St. John's.

Sources: Marcel Breuer, A Memoir by Robert F. Gatje, Brother Alan Reed OSB, Curator, St. Johns Abbey, Brother David Klingeman, OSB, Archivist, St. John's Abbey, Abbot John Klassen, OSB, Brother Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, President, Saint John's University • Photos: Jim Vlcek, Bob Noble, Has Namuth, Bill Allen: St. John's Abbey Archival Dept., Abbot Baldwin Dworschak, OSB, Lee Hanley, Shin Koyama, Eric Sutherland, Taylor and Dull, Fr. Hugh Witzmann, OSB, Rufus Stillman: from the Archives of American Art, Illustrations and photo-editing: Jared McCarthy • Other Breuer churches in the United States include: Annunciation Priory Church in Bismark, North Dakota and St. Francis De Sales Parish Church in Muskegan, Michigan.

The Author's Reflections
Although extremely simple from a distance, Breuer's designs come to life when examined with a closer eye. I'm sure tens-of-thousands of photos (from every conceivable angle) have been taken (by amateur and professional alike) over the past 40 years of the Saint John's Abbey Church, but, as I myself witnessed, one can't truly appreciate what's REALLY going on without a site visit. Upon closer inspection, your eye will see a myriad of detail and "purpose"...a revelation not readily observable with two-dimensional photography.
—Jim Vlcek, Editor in Chief, Concrete News

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© 2002 L&M Construction Chemicals, Inc. | ConcreteNews Spring 2002.

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