VJAA’s Work at Saint John’s Abbey
Vincent James and Jennifer Yoos
Published in 2A Magazine Issue #17 – Spring 2011
Vincent James and Jennifer Yoos are architects and principals of VJAA. Their work integrates design practice with research and explores the interconnections of social, cultural and environmental issues with the built environment. Vincent was educated at the University of Wisconsin and taught at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design from 2000-2008. Jennifer was educated at the University of Minnesota, the Architectural Association in London and was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
Photography: Paul Crosby Studios
Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35). And to all let due honor be shown, especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims.
The Rule of Benedict, 6th century (1)
Over a period of five years, VJAA was commissioned for the architectural design of three projects on the Saint John’s Abbey and University Campus. The projects included two additions to the renowned Abbey Church complex by Marcel Breuer and the completion of the Abbey Guesthouse in accordance with Breuer’s masterplan.
Saint John’s Abbey Guesthouse
In the 1950’s, Marcel Breuer began his work with the Benedictine monastic community in Collegeville, Minnesota. During the subsequent twenty years, Breuer designed ten buildings constructed largely of cast-in-place concrete. The majority of the projects were completed, but an important piece of his masterplan – the Abbey Guesthouse – was never designed. (Figs. 1, 2)
In accordance with a modern interpretation of the Benedictine Rule, the Abbey requested that the Guesthouse accommodate up to fifty visitors seeking to experience the spirituality of monastic life. Benedictine values emphasize simplicity, moderation and finding spirituality in the ordinary events of everyday life. Guest “retreatants” follow the same traditional daily rhythms of study, work, and meditation as the monks, with similar levels of communal interaction and individual solitude. Sustainable design concepts throughout the project were also guided by the Rule of Benedict and included criteria for stewardship, durability, frugality, hospitality and comfort. The program combines thirty guestrooms with meeting areas, a library, a meditation room, dining facilities, and administrative offices. In order to maintain distinct separations and a sense of seclusion, the most active public spaces were consolidated on the mid-level and silent areas on the upper and lowest levels. The resulting Guesthouse plan was inspired by the traditional cloister, but instead of the typical closed loop plan, we developed a three-dimensional circulation sequence composed of two overlapping L-shaped halves that wrap around a mid-level courtyard garden. Along the circulation paths, concrete block colonnades, channel glass, and perforated block walls filter daylight and choreograph a sequence of discrete views. Emulating the simplicity and modesty of the monastery rooms, the guesthouse rooms have direct views of either the lake or Abbey Church.
The material pallet of the Guesthouse, consisting of loadbearing concrete block walls, exposed precast concrete plank and channel glass, was inspired by Breuer’s austere use of simple textural materials visible throughout the campus. Custom pre-cast concrete screen blocks were designed to filter light, dissipate sound and mediate between various spaces. At night, they act as a lantern along the approach to the entry. (Figs. 3, 4, 5)
Church Pavilion Project and Blessed Sacrament Chapel
In 1957 Abbot Baldwin Dvorak issued a challenge to “think boldly and cast our ideals in forms that will be valid for centuries to come”. Marcel Breuer’s resulting design for the Abbey Church is still recognized as one of his most significant works. The innovative design of the church and the visibility it created between the priests/monastic community and the laity also signified an important shift preceding the Second Vatican Council. (2)
Within the Abbey Church complex, the monastery Chapterhouse was sited at the intersection between the monastery and the laity (the Abbey Church) as an extension along the “cloister walk”. Designed for traditional meetings of the monastic community and the abbot, it was not intended to be open to the larger community. The Abbey asked that the Chapterhouse now be made more open and accessible to the greater Saint John’s community. The addition creates a new accessible entry and connection directly from the parking area and from the new Guesthouse. The addition’s new two-level lobby and elevator provide access to the Lower Church for wheelchairs and funerals as well as access to new support spaces. (Figs. 6-8)
Another important programmatic change was the relocation of the Eucharist and the tabernacle from the church altar, to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. This shift allows for the Eucharist to be used to administer to the sick and for daily private devotion. The Abbey had adapted an existing office space, adjacent to the main church and on the cloister walk, to serve as a chapel for the tabernacle. As part of their new vision of the church, the Abbey asked that a new chapel be designed in the existing space but with a direct connection to the church. They requested that the chapel be more “conspicuous to the gathered faithful, prayerful, accessible and also architecturally significant, yet sympathetic to the church.” Two new openings were cut in the existing concrete wall of the church to create an intimate chapel with visibility from the church for daily devotions. The sanctuary lamp is placed in an opening in the wall, signifying the presence of the Eucharist. (Fig. 9)
The new chapel is lined in oak slats that emulate the texture of Breuer’s millwork as well as the formwork patterns in the concrete in the church but uses a natural finish to create its unique identity within the church. At the center of the chapel, a reinterpretation of the 14th century reredos wall filters light from a single existing exterior window. The wall is made up of 40 oak blocks with asymmetrically tapered surfaces, stacked on nickel-plated steel plates. Placed at the center, the tabernacle seems to hover on a shaft of light. Four oak blocks are indented to provide niches for votives or other sacred objects. To distribute light from the oak wall, platinum leaf covers the ceiling and polished black marble mosaic tiles cover the floor below. From particular viewpoints, the form of the cross of Saint Benedict can be seen within the pattern of light. From other vantage points, the pattern of light is more diffuse and ephemeral. (Figs. 10)
1. Saint Benedict. Doyle, Leonard J. (Translator), The Rule of Benedict, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2001.
2. Stoddard, Whitney S., Adventure In Architecture: Building the New Saint John’s, Longmans, Green and Company, New York, 1958. Pages 22-25, 34-37, 88-90