Sacred Connections through Concrete

Volume 51, Issue 1 :: Victoria Young

Saint John’s Abbey Church, north elevation with concrete bell banner.

Saint John’s Abbey Church, north elevation with concrete bell banner. Photographer: Olga Ivanova. Courtesy of author.

Considering Marcel Breuer’s Saint John’s Abbey Church and Bartholomew Voorsanger’s Chapel at the National World War II Museum.

In 1961, upon completion of the Abbey Church of Saint John the Baptist in Collegeville, Minnesota, by Marcel Breuer and Associates, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis produced an exhibition and catalogue about the buildings in process at the abbey. The catalogue included an essay by Breuer’s associate Hamilton Smith, who reflected on the church’s design from three perspectives: liturgical, architectural, and philosophical. Smith’s approach provides a useful framework for analyzing sacred design, particularly when comparing spaces with dissimilar functions and from different eras. But from a perspective of more than 50 years, the abbey church has much to teach us about concrete as a structural and expressive material for sacred buildings, lessons that extend to this very day, such as seen in the design for the National World War II Museum Chapel in New Orleans, Louisiana, by Voorsanger Mathes Architects LLC, led by principal and lead designer Bartholomew Voorsanger.

  • Saint John’s Abbey Church, interior looking under the balcony to the altar. Photographer: Olga Ivanova. Courtesy of author.
  • Saint John’s Abbey Church, interior. Photographer: Olga Ivanova. Courtesy of author.
  • Saint John’s Abbey Church, balcony supports at the rear of the nave. Photographer: Olga Ivanova. Courtesy of author.

Liturgical Considerations

Although both by definition are sacred space, these two buildings function in different ways. Saint John’s Abbey Church (1953-1961) sustains the Catholic faith and Benedictine monasticism with all the necessary, fixed liturgical elements—baptismal font, confessionals, lectern, altar, communion tables, monastic choir stalls, and abbot’s throne—organized on a spiritual axis from entry to throne. A chapel in a national war museum has a broader purpose, however, as it serves all approaches to spirituality. It is a space for memorials, military graduations, weddings, funerals, and private contemplation. In response to its multiple functions, the 2012 conceptual design for the WWII Museum chapel demands flexibility of its ritual elements, and the altar and seating will be movable to provide the necessary layouts for spiritual engagement or more secular moments, as the chapel is also part of the museum’s exhibition strategy.

Architectural Elements

In his 1961 essay, Hamilton Smith examined architecture as a response to contemporary building technologies and the symbolic forms they create. Breuer’s method was to use materials of the present day in order to produce forms appropriate to a building’s function. As he noted, “The most interesting developments in structural design are those using reinforced concrete. Here is a completely plastic medium — concrete for compression, steel for tension in one new material. …For here the material not only acts as the support of the building, but also as the enclosure, the form.” In order to allow the engineered element of the abbey church to shine through, Breuer’s team consulted with the Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi, and their plans were brought to life by McGough Construction of Minnesota in the use of folded-plate concrete construction on the side walls (poured in place) and roof (gunite). The longest fold of the 12 that create the shell of the building spans 135 feet at the northern entrance and is 15 feet tall. The wall folds vary in thickness from 6 to 8 inches. The layout of the formwork needed to create this “architectural concrete,” as Smith called it, was carefully controlled by the firm. They provided the size and direction of the boards, their layout, and the indication of recessed joints to the construction team (and their monk assistants).

The builders fabricated 2″x 6″ and 2″x 8″ pieces of unsanded lumber into formworks typically used only once. This approach generated the “unavoidable irregularities and imperfections” that made the surface “weather gracefully like that of native stone.” Breuer intended to have a colorful interior with a gilt ceiling, white-painted sidewalls, and a blue southern concrete block wall. But when the formwork came off the concrete pours, he reveled in the variations of the material’s gray color and the marks the wood left behind on it. Exposing the concrete left visible the “bones, muscles and skin” of the building, showcasing “what made the building work” in order to see its “inner logic.” The beauty of the exposed reinforced concrete also provides the church’s primary aesthetic expression.

Voorsanger also values the truthfulness of concrete. “Its visual nature is inherently raw. It can be brutal or sublime. Concrete is inherently ‘candid,’ unlike the use of a veneer or additive surface. It’s not wearing a costume or special clothing. You are going right under the skin.” He chose reinforced concrete fashioned into precast panels for the chapel’s interior, making a direct connection with its exterior use as one member of a kit of design parts—concrete panels, corrugated metal, and glass—that unify all structures on the site in New Orleans. The 8-foot-tall exterior panels can be up to 35 feet long.

Each creates dynamic movement and interest in elevation. For example, corners are turned within the design of the panel itself, rather than having two panels meet at the edge of a building or by splicing the connection together with smaller elements. Inside the chapel, the 8-foot height is reduced to 4 feet and length varies from 8 to 16 feet. This diminution in scale helps in the process of construction and also provides the design team with the ability to more carefully develop surface detail. Like Breuer and Associates, Voorsanger’s team will design each panel, including its placement and finishes. A variety of smooth, tooled, and bush-hammered surfaces will reveal, according to Voorsanger, “a secondary layer of visual interest that lets the viewer participate in its materiality, not just its visual pattern.” Color will be minimal in the chapel’s interior. The ceiling is intended to have a thin plaster overlay with rivulets painted a variegated silver/gold combination. As at Saint John’s, reinforced concrete is the aesthetic expression of the space.

New iconographies of the sacred must be created at both sites due to the use of modernism as the architectural touchstone. At Saint John’s the bell banner became the focal element in a new symbolic language of Catholicism. Breuer likened this engineered portal of reinforced concrete to “the archaic column, gothic arch, and renaissance dome” [sic]. Because they need to allow for spiritual and private contemplation in the broadest sense, the symbolic elements of the WWII chapel are found in its “intense verticality, subdued light, visual power of the precast concrete, and similar detailing/material use as the rest of the museum,” as Voorsanger notes.

  • The National World War II Museum, aerial view with chapel location at the star. Courtesy of the WWII Museum.
  • WWII Chapel concept design, daytime. Courtesy of the WWII Museum.
  • WWII Chapel concept design, nighttime. Courtesy of the WWII Museum.

Philosophy of an Architect

An architect’s philosophical approach to design guides a project of any type from start to finish, and Smith notes that the considerations of optimism, simplicity, and “spatial amplitude” were significant to the team in the completion of the abbey church. An optimistic approach celebrates the joy in the collaboration between a client and architect. At Saint John’s, Abbot Baldwin Dworschak and the Benedictines were interested in “building a church which will be truly an architectural monument in the service of God” with a “modern architect” who had an “orientation toward functionalism and honest use of materials.” They did not go as far as to suggest the use of concrete, but 65 years later it is easy to see how they might have. The same type of steadfast hopefulness can be found in the process of creating the WWII Museum. Its founders, historians Stephen Ambrose and Gordon “Nick” Mueller, dreamt of a museum that “reflected their deep regard for the nation’s citizen soldiers, the workers on the Home Front, and the sacrifices and hardships they all endured to achieve victory.” They were less direct about the role architecture would play in achieving their vision, but instead allowed their architectural team to lead the way with an approach that did not glorify war, but rather celebrated peace and freedom.

Both clients tasked Breuer and Voorsanger with the completion of an entire campus. In all these buildings, simplicity in design comes from use of modern materials in structures that reveal their process of construction. And in their approach toward “spatial amplitude,” one can understand the value of concrete. Breuer felt that a religious space was one of great size. “I have the feeling, and this is not a very clear-cut program or idea, that any space which is larger than necessary and higher than necessary, and in which the structure and the whole building of the space is visible as it is in all churches…that this space created is simply automatically religious.” He went on to insist that a sacred space grew out of contemporary building technology, specifically reinforced concrete. Voorsanger approaches the design of a sacred project with reverence and a different level of intensity than if completing a secular one. Concrete is a viable material for either type of building. He wants visitors to be “emotionally displaced and in the privacy of their thoughts, in order to bring currency to their most sacred feelings. If you really succeed the visitor feels inherently special when they walk in. You have almost architectonically levitated them—they feel to a certain extent quietly liberated.” There is the sense in Voorsanger’s words, like Breuer’s, that tectonic elements create a formidable architectural space.

Conclusion

When Voorsanger visited Saint John’s Abbey Church for the first time in February 2015, he remarked that he felt Breuer’s spirit there. “I very much enjoyed feeling the individuality of the architect and his design.” In his innovative, engineered forms of reinforced concrete, Breuer gave prominence to the Catholic faith at midcentury. He was not aware, however, that his work would take on additional meaning as a result of its August 1961 dedication and consecration. He attended the service and was very moved by the ritual, telling Abbot Dworschak, “All I can say Father Abbot, is that this is the first building I have designed and the first object I have designed which has been made so sacred, or, as you would say, consecrated to God.” Voorsanger’s chapel design for the National World War II Museum holds the promise of elevation to a higher place for its users as well. Whether a monk at prayer or an individual contemplating the impact of war, space and the materials used to create it have the ability to uphold the power of one’s thoughts and prayers. The concrete designs of Marcel Breuer and Bartholomew Voorsanger for Saint John’s Abbey Church and the National World War II Museum Chapel reveal the insightful ways in which architects can provide a means for a user to connect with the sacred.

  1. Hamilton Smith, “Abbey and University Church of Saint John the Baptist,” Design Quarterly 53 (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1961): 9-25.
  2. Voorsanger Architects PC partnered with the firm of Mathes Brierre in New Orleans after winning the 2003 competition for the then D-Day Museum. They operate as Voorsanger Mathes LLC with Voorsanger’s team lead in design and Mathes Brierre in charge of construction management.
  3. Marcel Breuer, Marcel Breuer: Sun and Shadow (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1955), 70-71.
  4. Smith, “Abbey and University Church of Saint John the Baptist,” 15. Smith defined folded plate as “a system of building in which structural stiffness and the capacity to span long distances is derived from a repetitive pleating or corrugating of the concrete surfaces.”
  5. Smith, “Abbey and University Church of Saint John the Baptist,” 23. All additional quotations in this paragraph are taken from this same source unless noted.
  6. Breuer, Sun and Shadow, 70.
  7. Bartholomew Voorsanger in discussion with author, January 30, 2018.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Breuer, Sun and Shadow, 71.
  10. Voorsanger, January 30, 2018.
  11. Smith, “Abbey and University Church of Saint John the Baptist,” 19, 21.
  12. Excerpt from the invitation letter Abbot Baldwin Dworschak sent to competition architects. Building Committee Comprehensive Plans and Reports, Saint John’s Abbey Archive, Box 5 Folder 4.
  13. “About the Founder: Stephen E. Ambrose, Ph.D.,” accessed 1 February 2018, http://www.nationalww2museum.org/about-the-museum/about-the-founder.html.
  14. John Pope, “National World War II Museum Receives a Record-Setting $20 Million Gift,” Times-Picayune, accessed 1 February 2018, http://www.nola.com/military/index.ssf/2015/03/wwii_museum_20_million.html.
  15. Shirley Reiff Howarth, “Marcel Breuer: On Religious Architecture,” Art Journal 38, 4 (Summer 1979): 260.
  16. Voorsanger, January 30, 2018.
  17. Bartholomew Voorsanger visit to Saint John’s Abbey with author, February 2015.
  18. Abbot Baldwin Dworschak, “Marcel Breuer: In Grateful Memory,” Saint John’s 21, 1 (Fall 1981): 1.

The writer is professor of modern architectural history at the University of
St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.