Towards a Non-Sterile Architecture
Marcel Breuer, Saint Bernard Hall: photo by author.
About a month ago, the architecture faculty and administration of the University of Minnesota joined the entering class of first year graduate students for a weekend retreat at St. John’s University. This retreat is an annual gathering organized by Terrence Rafferty, Director of Graduate Admissions and Recruitment, as well as Renee Cheng, Professor and Head of the department. The event provides matriculating students an opportunity to develop bonds with their new piers and professors before classes begin—in a meditative setting comprised by a collection of inspired buildings designed by Marcel Breuer.
It was my first experience to visit St. John’s, and I spent several hours with colleagues studying Breuer’s masterpieces there, including the Abbey, the Alcuin Library, Saint Bernard Hall, the Peter Engel Science Center, and the Chapter House. We even had an opportunity to traverse the catwalks in the Abbey ceiling—an unforgettable experience, and certainly not for the faint of heart. Gazing up at the soaring, sculptural masses of board-formed concrete—light filtering through Joseph Albers’ colorful skylights or cellular membranes comprised of stained glass—I felt captivated by the powerful aspirations that Breuer and his client were able to realize in physical form. As a result, I not only learned more about this particular epoch (from 1955 to 1968), but also about our own time.
My initial thought was: “Have we lost something?” In the decades that followed Breuer’s time at St. John’s, architecture has responded to increased budget and schedule challenges motivated by commercial developers seeking to “tighten the screws.” In my opinion, these pressures have brought about a kind of “new corporate” architecture marked by a relentless adherence to rigid formulas of floor-area ratios, glazing areas, floor-to-floor heights, maximum facade depths, and so on. Sadly, this situation has not been limited to commercial markets, but has also infiltrated virtually every other building type. Moreover, the way many firms now practice “green design” is defined by yet another layer of proscriptive, checklist-style decision-making that ironically enhances a building’s sterility and banality.
Architecture may face new challenges today that didn’t exist several decades ago, but it doesn’t have to lose its vibrancy. Breuer’s work at St. John’s is breathtaking in its unapologetic ambition. These structures not only met their own programmatic requirements; they celebrated them. However, client directives were not imposed via “tightening the screws,” but rather in the form of enlightened and essential considerations such as accessibility, procession, and connection to light. In these edifices one sees the dreams of the client and architect manifest simultaneously—an experience truly humbling for our time. As we struggle to create our own chapter for architecture, we must also remember to dream.